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A Brief History of the MP3 Player

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World's First MP3 Player (1998) - MPMan 32MBWe tend to think of historical gadgets as something invented before our lifetime; but in the world we live in today, things invented in the 80’s and 90’s are already considered historical – antique, something quaint but completely irrelevant and surpassed by today’s technology (which is next year’s quaint but completely irrelevant object).  A case in point is the MP3 player:

First invented by Audible.com in 1998 (yes, less than 20 years ago), it sold from January of that year for USD $200, had a capacity of 4 MB internal flash memory, which came out to about 2 hours of play, and had a custom rechargeable battery pack (which meant that the expensive bit was dependent on that specialized battery recharging – I doubt they were replaceable).  It had basic controls and no display.

Does anyone know what MP3 stands for?  It’s not a straight-forward term such as CD (“Compact Disk”):  MP is an abbreviation of an abbreviation, MPEG meaning “Motion Picture Experts Group”, who set standards for encoding moving pictures (and sound) in digital form. Which means that technically the thing we think of as playing music stands for “motion picture”.  The 3 refers to “audio layer 3”, one of the sections of the standard for encoding sound only; omitting the video layer left a convenient format for music.

So the next time you log into Spotify through your Sonos system or your cell phone, just think of all the decades of high-priced technology you’re bypassing; and feel free to tip your hat to those intrepid inventors as you laugh, put in your ear buds, and listen to music on your music library/agenda/game/apps/life’s-eggs-in-one-basket cell phone…

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