A Digital Life

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Digital Life

In some cases, the technology has advanced faster than the understanding of the technology has. This really becomes a problem when the laws don't evolve or haven't been written to handle new technologies as they arise. Often, these are the situations that will change the entire landscape of industry. One case example is digital music

Digital Music

When audio CD’s first hit the streets in 1983, no one realized they would fundamentally change the way music is listened to, distributed, or stored. The changed didn't happen right away. It wasn't until computers started having decent audio cards and cd-drives became standard equipment on them— the creation of the multimedia pc— that music started to evolve.

Once cd-drives were standard, processors powerful enough, and the sound cards able to produce music with a decent signal-to-noise ratio— it was almost inevitable that someone would develop software to listen to audio cd’s on computers.

Initially, the only thing you could do was listen to music. Then, software was developed to "rip" music. This is taking the digital audio stream from a cd and converting it into a computer data file. Unfortunately, the files were initially very large and hard drive space was expensive, so very few people were able to do much with it.

The next advance in digital music was the use of an audio compression algorithm, initially developed for DVD movies, to make the size of the files much smaller, without a noticeable loss of sound quality. MP3’s were fairly high quality files, similiar in sound quality to the original cd, but you could now fit hundreds of songs on a single data cd.

The next major advance in digital music was the advent of large, inexpensive hard drives. Hard drive storage space is now down to about a dollar a gigabyte... The first 1 GB hard drive I ever owned was a gift from a friend. It cost $400 or so, and now the 80 GB hard drive my father just bought was $99 with a $30 rebate.

Now, with cheap hard drive storage, fast processors, and decent audio quality, people started to listen to music on their computers regularly. Laptop users were using their laptops as portable music libraries. Then people started to trade song files. Initially, this was via physically trading cd’s of MP3’s.

Broadband internet access started to change how people traded MP3 files. E-mail accounts now started to be used to trade songs. When dialup was the primary connection for most people, it took too long to download a single song. But with the arrival of cable and dsl connections, songs now took seconds to download, not hours.

The next major change in digital music was Napster. This allowed you to trade files with people you didn't know. It also allowed you to search for specific songs you were looking for. This was the first time that digital music, in the form of MP3’s, had made it onto the radar of the recording industry.

Portable MP3 players were an inevitable offshoot of the digital music trend. The first players were fairly simple— based on flash memory and limited in their ability to store many songs. As the electronics industry realized the market potential, and feedback from the initial purchasers of MP3 players arrived, players with larger capacity and more sophisticated capabilities began to hit the market.

Portable MP3 players weren't the only new devices to take advantage of digital music’s evolution. Car cd decks, home cd systems and portable cd players took advantage of the ability to store hundreds of songs on a single cd and began to support MP3 playback on CD-R and CD-RW discs. Now, a car cd-changer could hold hundreds of songs, instead of a few dozen.

The ultimate MP3 player, at least to date, is the Apple iPod. The top-end iPod can hold almost four weeks of continuous music. In some ways, the iPod would have been the ultimate gift for Gee... who was a music fanatic. The iPod is based around a 1.8 inch hard drive built by Toshiba. The third generation iPods are built around 10, 20 and 40 GB hard drives.

The most recent change in the music industry is the advent of on-line music services. Apple’s iTunes Music Store is the first on-line music service to be really successful. Since it’s launch back in April, it has sold over 25 million songs. This has really changed the outlook of the music industry on the viability of downloaded music. Following the success of ITMS, other companies have followed. It will be interesting to see what changes will come as technology continues to advance.

P.S. No, I'm not an Apple evangelist, even though I have used them since 1978 or so. I just believe that Apple currently has the best music technology out there.