The ubiquitous Apple iPod has pretty much taken over the world. There are at least three versions of the main iPod and the device has become synonymous with “portable music player”. Many people say that it’s the best player out there and that they can’t live without their iPod. However, the iPod was not the first device to play portable music. In fact, the device that was the first digital audio player celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. Let’s rewind back to that much more innocent time, 1998. Ten years ago, there was no iPod, no iTunes and only one digital audio format, MP3.
The MP3 music encoding standard was developed by several different labs including Phillips and Bell Labs. This encoding went public in the mid-90s and with it’s ability to encode/compress large music files down to very small file sizes it would become extremely popular with the tech/audiophile crowd on the early internet. Nullsoft would release it’s WinAmp MP3 player in 1997 which would make MP3 encoding/playback available to the masses and caused the format to explode into the mainstream.
I remember first being introduced to the MP3 format and the WinAmp player in 1999. I was consulting in Tampa, FL and this guy burned me a CD of thousands of songs that I could just drag and drop from the CD to the WinAmp window and play on my laptop. The sound quality was unbelievable. I wondered when I’d have a way to listen to it in a portable device like my old Sony Walkman. What I didn’t realize was that my idea had already been created.
Roughly a year earlier, in March 1998, Eiger Labs imported the MPMan F10 from Japan, the first solid state portable audio player. It had only 32Mb of memory (by comparison, the iPod Shuffle has at least 1024Mb of memory) but if you sent it back to Eiger with 70 bucks, they’d up it to 64Mb. It, of course, would only play MP3 files because that is the only digital audio format that existed at the time. Despite being deceptively small, the MPMan F10 was not well received. A few months later Rio would release the PMP300 which would garner much better public opinion and sold fairly well. Both devices ran on regular AA batteries and needed replacing often. It was these two devices that helped usher in the age of digital music until the release of the Apple iPod’s 1st Generation player in October 2001.
This first generation iPod didn’t have the click wheel (or Touch Wheel) we have all become so familiar with as that particular feature wasn’t introduced until the third generation of the iPod in 2003. I remember the first iPod back then but I was unimpressed with them due to many technical problems, the most prominent being severe battery malfunctions. And since the battery was sealed inside, you had to return the entire unit for repair.
Instead of buying the brand spanking new iPod, I got the Archos Jukebox Recorder (pic below) for my birthday in May 2002. At the time, Apple had only just released the 10Gb iPod in March 2002, but the Archos Jukebox had a 20Gb hard drive and it was only about 100 bucks more (for quadruple the memory). Since iTunes wasn’t the online force it is today, buying the Archos was an easy decision. I was actually getting most of my music from Napster or Kazaa anyway so I had a ton of MP3s built up ready to load onto my new music player. I was set.
This player served me well for almost 3 years. I not only used it to store my music files, I also kept a lot of work/personal files on it while I was traveling as a consultant because there was so much room. There were problems with it though. The interface was clunky and nowhere near as elegant as Apple’s (and it tended to freeze requiring a reboot). The player itself was bulky and heavy. In 2005 I started running for exercise and using this player was like carrying around a paperback book made of solid steel; heavy and unwieldy. It made running long distances tough. I actually dropped it on my foot one day and I thought I broke my toe. That’s how heavy this thing is. Also, the hard drive was your traditional platter drive, so you could hear the humming like you do in a normal computer (the iPod had this also but their sound buffering is better). This thing was built like a tank. Nothing I did could break it. It still works, except the battery is pretty much at the end of it’s rechargeable cycles because I have to plug it into the wall to turn it on.
Luckily, for my birthday in 2006, I got my first iPod, the Shuffle. It’s perfect for running. Small, lightweight, easy to manipulate controls, it’s great. Makes running much more enjoyable.
So wherever you came in on the portable digital audio player time line, just remember, you are enjoying the fruits of labor of many people and many years of technolgy. Apple didn’t invent portable audio players, they just perfected them (in my opinion).