The New York Times recently reported about Sony playing catch-up to Apple in the portable MP3 player market. That and a new Squeezebox got me thinking; I've spent about $1000 on MP3 hardware. And none of that has gone to a traditional music or stereo manufacturer.
I've bought two portable MP3 players from Archos and two network MP3 players from Slim Devices. None of these are traditional music devices. The Archos is more like a USB hard drive that happens to have an MP3 decoder. The Squeezebox is a tiny network device, not a stereo component. Both are hacker friendly, too: there's Rockbox for Archos and Slim actively encourages development.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that the MP3 market is being owned by computer companies, not stereo companies. And it's nice, too. I love having 20 gigs of stuff in my car that I can sync to work. I love having 40 gigs of music on my stereo, letting me move from Górecki to Bach to Schönberg to Messiaen to Wendy Carlos without having to fumble for CDs. Isn't it amazing that companies like Sony missed it?
I've used a slimp3 in my house for awhile now. Simple MP3 network appliance: small screen and remote control streams MP3 from your server. Slim Devices has now released a wireless version, the Squeezebox.
The biggest change is built-in 802.11b; no more need for an wireless/ethernet bridge. They also put in a digital out and wrapped it in a more conventional case. Looks like nice improvements.
The protocol design is very clever. It's as low level as it gets. The hardware device accepts commands like "write this MP3 data into memory" or "stick this byte on the I2C bus". All the hard work is done in the server.
That means functionality can be added without hacking the device. Streaming Internet audio, Ogg Vorbis files? Have the server do the hard work and send MP3 to the device. Menus work by sending IR codes to the server, so you can add new functions. Some nut has added a calculator.
The server may be the barrier to the SLIMP3 becoming common. Anyone into MP3s has a PC in their house and may even have a network. But do they have a stable server machine? It'd suck if mom's relaxing music in the parlour is interrupted because junior is playing SimCity.
I was really hoping to find a wireless MP3 component. There are a couple, but none seem as good as the SLIMP3 with a wireless/ethernet bridge. The cd3o has a voice interface that sounds like a terrible idea. The Exstreamer sounds cool but doesn't have any interface at all. Gloolabs' Homepod is still vapourware.
I imagine SLIMP3 will be acquired by someone. I wonder if they can remain hacker-friendly while producing a product simple enough for the average consumer?