May 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio May 1999 Current Issue
May 1999 Tech filesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:



Big Bang: MP3 Reinvents Delivery of Audio

The future of sound may be coming to a meeting venue near you

It measures 2 inches by 3 inches, weighs less than four ounces and has no moving parts, but plug earphones into it, and it delivers compact disc-quality music or hours of nonmusical audio, like speeches, news or updates on meetings. It is controversial, threatens the fundamentals of the music business and is the hottest item to hit technology stores in the past six months. It is Diamond Multimedia’s Rio PMP300, a palm-size device that plays MP3 files.

Time for a jargon check. MP3 is short for MPEG-3, a compression standard that allows audio files to be squished so they are only 1/20th the size of what they would be on a CD. MPEG stands for Moving Picture Experts Group, the nickname given to a group of international standards used for coding audiovisual information in a digital-compressed format.

A standard-length pop song can occupy 10 to 20 megabytes of space on a compact disc. After being converted to MP3, the song would be about 800 kilobytes. This means more audio information can be stored using less memory. Moreover, the sound quality offered by an MP3 player is quite remarkable; for the average listener, it is not noticeably inferior to that of a CD player. The Rio, one of several such products on the market, holds 60 minutes of audio, uses just one AA battery and costs less than $200. Because it is a solid-state device, movement does not affect the quality of delivery.

But the real benefit of MP3, and the reason it is so controversial, is smaller audio files can be sent over the Internet in significantly less time, so downloading them is a snap. Once retrieved, the files can be transferred to a Rio or played through a personal computer’s speakers using one of several software programs available. Many MP3-friendly media players for Windows and Macintosh, like the popular WinAmp and MacAmp players, are downloadable through Web sites like Lycos’ MP3 Search ( and (

The arrival and growing acceptance of MP3 is shaking up the music-publishing industry because it allows artists to release their own music in the format for distribution through the Internet. For example, I found a Web site that a new band in Seattle created to promote itself. Through the site, I was able to download for free one of the band’s songs in MP3 format. I transferred the downloaded song from my PC to my Rio. In a few weeks, the band will start to sell its songs on a pay-per-track basis directly through the site, for as little as 25 cents a song. They get to keep the entire quarter, rather than sharing it with a music publisher, distributor and retail store.

Educators have begun to discover ways to capitalize on the technology, too. Recently, I was sitting on an airplane listening to my Rio, but it was not music in my ears; I had purchased a lecture from a major university on the economics of Internet distribution. The university had recorded a faculty member’s class, compressed the recording into MP3 format and sold it through the Internet for $3 per download.

In the near future, the ability to play MP3 files (soon to become MP4, as new and better compression techniques are released) will be built into a broad set of devices. Watch for cell phones to come with MP3 storage and decompression capabilities. This will allow the phones to receive MP3 files and store them in the device for later playback. Likewise, MP3 capability is being developed for the ever-popular palm and handheld computer market.

The meetings industry can harness MP3 as an innovative way to provide pre- and post-event audio files to participants. One day, rather than selling audiotapes of keynote speeches, there might be a machine at the back of the room that will download an MP3 version of the speech to attendees’ devices for a dollar. It will be easy to distribute pre-conference briefings to attendees through the Internet as a function of event marketing. The technology also will make it possible for meeting sponsors to sell compact audio sound bites from conventions over the Web.

For more information about MP3 and the Rio, visit these Web sites: (, Lycos’ MP3 Search (, Crawford Communications (, Diamond Multimedia ( and (

Elliott Masie is president of The MASIE Center ( an international think tank focused on technology and learning.

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