Friday, July 31, 2009

Early adopters get screwed, Part Two

Early adopters get screwed. Still not convinced? I'll bet you are, but let me elaborate more, this time using the mp3 as an example.

What is an mp3? An ultra-compressed audio file. Actually, I don't think compressed is the right term--it's reduced (sound thrown away) and compressed (bytes shrunken through magic). I don't know if anything lossy could be properly referred to as just "compressed."

My first real experience with an mp3 must have been in 1997, because I remember the first mp3 I ever downloaded. It was Sheryl Crow's theme for the movie "Tomorrow Never Dies," downloaded from some site giving it away free as a promotion. Note, I wasn't big into Sheryl Crow or anything, I just clicked the first link I saw so I could see for myself what an mp3 was.

Previous to this, if I wanted to find a song online, it would most likely be in Real Audio format. Real Audio was the "canned sound" of the early digital age. It sounded good for the file size, but not good overall. It was the best option when the majority of people online were on dialup, though.

I had seen mp3s mentioned many times before downloading this file, but I skipped over it just as I skipped over midi's, a file type also more prevalent back then. Finally I did a real investigation of mp3s, found out what it was, what it claimed to do, and downloaded that song. It sounded really good for 5 MB. I started collecting mp3s. I still have that first mp3, by the way.

Now, for a kid in a small town, I didn't have any money or any real source of CDs. I resorted to piracy. This was over a decade ago mind you, the climate was a lot different. We knew it was ilegal but it wasn't like you could be put in jail for it. Today we have bittorrent sites. A few years ago peer-ro-peer file sharing was king. In 1997, if you wanted an mp3, you had to wade through dozens of crappy FTP sites.

FTP--file transfer protocol, was a device invented by the devil himself (probably) to make the internet less fun. I'm not going to go into ratios, or the obligatory banner-clicks in order to get passwords. No, I'll just say that you had to spend hours to find one song, forget about entire albums, and then you had to spend hours downloading it.

I'm going to digress for a moment, to a time a year or two before I discovered mp3. Our family bought a new computer, with a one-point-something GB hard drive. My dad told my older brother and I we could each have 250 MB for games and files. I asked "What if we need more than 250 MB?" My dad and brother, they laughed at me. What could possibly use up 250 MB, my dad asked. "I don't know, a game." That would have to be some game, he said. See any games sold today smaller than 256 MB? Maybe on the Wii.

So back to my FTP days, imagine my shock when Napster came out, and I was the last to know about it. It would have been my senior year in high scchool, probably fall of 1999. I felt cheated. I'd been going on mini scavenger hunts for music, and now all these late-adopters barely had to type in the name and they could download much more than I ever found.

Now we have Bittorent. And the next big system will hopefully have bittorrent's resource-utilizing capabilities matched with inpenetrable (from outside) security.

Now I'll switch gears to ripping CDs. Ripping CDs to mp3 used to take hours. My newest PC can rip and encode a CD in 5 minutes. It's sickening.

Shameless bragging--I'm the first person I know who had all his CDs in mp3 form. This was before mp3 players (I think). After CD burners, but before I could talk my parents into getting one. I used to make mixed cassette tapes with mp3s. I'd play the mp3s in Winamp, plug my brother's radio broadcaster (for playing your cd player over your car's radio) into the PC's speaker-out port, tune into that station on my dad's boom box, and record to a blank cassette tape. Seriously.

Eventually I bought an external hard drive. I don't remember how small it was. I can't even remember what it looked like. I actually had to re-encode all my mp3s from 256kbps to 192kbps because I was running out of room. On average, doing this to 3 albums made room for 1 more on the hard drive. Look at your 1 TB hard drive and think about that.

My first digital music player wasn't an mp3 player, it was a minidisc player. It was actually pretty cool. It looked cool, it got attention, and the damned thing still works, sort of (won't record anymore, put plays all my old discs). I'm not even going to go into minidiscs, or anything else, for that matter.

One thing to be thankful about is that my first choice for codec, mp3, is still the most widely used today. I looked at ogg vorbis, I did blind tests, and I did find it to be superior to mp3 at lower bit rates. The difference wasn't good enough to convert all my old files, and even today it's hard to find mp3 players that support it.

That aside, I think I've made my point, for now.


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