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Philips to unite MP3 and CD technology

eXpanium encourages users to rip CDs, download MP3s from Net

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Consumer electronics giant Philips will set the proverbial cat among the music industry's pigeons when it launches its eXpanium MP3-based CD player later this year.

The device, the same size as a standard portable CD player, is designed specifically to play discs jammed full of MP3 files ripped from the users own CDs or downloaded from the Net. It's hard to imagine a device that the music biz would fear more.

Philips claims a home-made CD full of MP3 files gives you up to ten hours of playback time, rather more than Flash memory-based players like Diamond's Rio. You'll need a CD writer, of course, but since they're increasingly becoming standard on home PCs, that's unlikely to trouble Philips' target audience.

It will, however, trouble the likes of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The trade body, which represents the music business' biggest names, is notoriously anti-MP3 and in particular the process of downloading them from the Net. To date, downloading has largely been an issue of copying files to a user's hard drive for playback - hardly a hi-fi experience - or perhaps a Rio. The size - or, more accurately, the cost of Flash memory - has ensured the portable MP3 player is hardly what you'd call a mass-storage device.

A CD-based player, however, is another matter. Quite apart from users ripping their own CDs - legal under the terms of the US Home Recording Act - and downloading tracks from Napster (unless the RIAA's copyright theft case against the software developer is successful), there's the issue of mass-produced CDs containing ten hours' pirated MP3 files. The music industry has always admitted that the real piracy threat comes not from MP3 but from Far Eastern CD pressing plants that can churn out illegal CDs en masse. Philips eXpanium brings the two together.

Not that it's the first device to do so - Pine has that honour, various Reg readers remind us - but it is the first from a major global consumer electronics company, one whose name will certainly go a long way to legitimise MP3 and the conversion of existing CDs into MP3 files. That's the issue here - particularly given the failure of the music industry to block the sale of home audio recording equipment in the past.

And Philips is a company that's too big for the RIAA to bully into submission.

Of course, Philips is keen to stress that eXpanium is only intended to play legitimate MP3 files - "You can also down-load legal MP3 music files from the Internet to your hard drive," says the promotional bumf (our italics) - so it's clearly aware of the piracy issue. The player doesn't appear to come with CD ripping software, suggesting Philips wants to make it clear the responsibility for doing so lies firmly with the user.

However, it's hard to see how the company could have come up with a device that makes MP3 more attractive. There's certainly no mention of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) in Philips' eXpanium promotional material (tag line: "Rip it! Burn it! Spin it!").

Philips is planning to ship eXpanium in August, and the company is currently recruiting 50 "lucky" beta testers via its US Web site. ®

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