LJ Archive

LLinux Drives Digital Audio Revolution

Linley Gwennap

Issue #78, October 2000

Home music networks of the (near) future will bring unlimited choice into your living room.

Can MP3 really send CDs to the same dusty bin as vinyl records and cassettes? Not if the only way you can listen to tunes is by using your PC or a battery-powered player that holds an hour of music. But fear not, digital denizens—a number of new devices are emerging to MP3-ize everything from stereo components to boom boxes. And Linux will play a key role in this potentially huge new market.

The New Media: No Media

For too long, digital music has been tied to a specific medium: the 120mm CD. To listen to a song, you carry a disc from player to player. That isn't so bad with one disc, but carrying an entire collection around is impractical. And until the recent availability of CD burners, there was no way to create new compilations of songs you like or get rid of ones you don't. But digital music is just a bunch of bits. The combination of new compression techniques such as MP3, with faster modems and bigger hard disks, has made it practical to move digitized songs from one device to another. It has also become trivial to create (legally or illegally) new copies of songs.

Today, this process is typically performed on a PC, which is the only device that most people own with a network connection and a hard disk. But a PC is not ideal for this task. It takes a long time to boot, the user interface is complex, and it crashes frequently. In addition, PCs are too expensive to put in every room, and they often don't have high-quality sound outputs.

The solution is to create a home music network. Start with a music server. This stand-alone device has a hard disk, a network connection, a small screen or TV connection for the user interface, high-quality audio outputs and inputs, and probably a CD drive. Users can download music from the Internet and also “rip” their own files from the CD drive or external audio sources. The user can listen to stored music using playlists or listen to streaming Internet radio.

The natural operating system for this device is Linux. No Windows compatibility is needed in this appliance, but Linux provides out-of-the-box networking and enough power to handle downloading, ripping, streaming and listening at the same time.

Now add music clients to the home network. These low-cost devices send requests to the music server and play streaming audio from the server or from the Internet. No hard disk or CD drive is required, but Linux is again a good choice, given its low cost and network support. Just as your home may have several radios and CD players, future homes will have several music devices connected to the music server.

A number of technologies, by the way, are vying to become the home network of choice, including phone line (HPNA), power line (HomePlug) and wireless (802.11). Any of these can support a home music network of several devices. With this new way of listening to music, there is no physical medium. Songs are accessible as bit streams from any device that is hooked to the network. In theory, you could listen to your music from a hotel room in Iowa, assuming it had an Internet connection. You could also download songs to a variety of portable devices that could each hold some or all of your music collection, allowing you to listen to your music when not connected to the Net.

Devices Beginning to Emerge

The first company to get behind this vision was S3, which owns the Rio line of portable MP3 players. The company recently announced the Rio Receiver (http://www.riohome.com/), which is a music client that uses the PC as a server, connecting through your existing phone wiring (without disrupting your phone service). The device sells for about $250 US, although you will also need to add a $49 phone-line networking card to your PC if you don't already have one. S3 is developing a music server, but that device is not yet available. Both S3 and partner Dell Computer are selling the new devices.

Figure 1. The Rio Receiver

Other small companies including Lansonic, Lydstrom and Zapmedia are marketing digital music systems with various levels of networking capability, but only S3 is producing both music servers and low-cost music clients. Its Rio was the first and is still the leading portable MP3 player, and S3 is leading the way with home stereo components as well. While only a third of all Americans regularly use the Internet, almost everyone listens to music. Digital music, in MP3 and other formats, could be the killer application that drives the adoption of home networks. As the easiest way to get a non-PC device onto a network, Linux will have many opportunities in this new market.

Linley Gwennap (linleyg@linleygroup.com) is the founder and principal analyst of The Linley Group (http://www.linleygroup.com/), a technology analysis firm is Mt. View, California.

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