Coming soon: The wireless music player

Sometimes you see a convergence of technology trends that result into a new device or product and you slap yourself on the head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" That happened when I met recently with officials from MusicGremlin, which plans to debut a wireless digital audio player by year-end. The device is a result of the popularity of music player (think iPod) and the explosion of wireless networks (Wi-Fi hot spots, etc.).

The idea is this: instead of having people use their computers to obtain music from either subscription services (Napster, Rhapsody, etc.) or a la carte services (iTunes), the MusicGremlin device uses a Wi-Fi connection to download songs directly to the device. By eliminating the PC, users eliminate a lot of the pain points in searching, managing and obtaining digital music.

The "secret sauce" of the MusicGremlin story is not in the device (the company is currently seeking a partner in the consumer electronics device world), but in the software behind the device, as well as agreements with record labels to provide a large enough library of songs. When the device ships, it will include a database (meta data) of existing songs that the user can then download from the service. Users will have the option of paying a monthly fee for an "all-you-can-eat" plan of songs with the songs disappearing when the subscription lapses, or something similar to iTunes where users can buy songs for $1 to $2 and keep it permanently.

By downloading songs directly from the MusicGremlin servers onto the device, digital rights management features and extra security help prevent the songs from being pirated or shared illegally, officials said. However, there is still a sharing component to MusicGremlin. For users who buy into a subscription program (no pricing announced yet), it is hoped they would be able to "share" music with other subscribers via the ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection.

Another feature is the idea of a customized playlist, which MusicGremlin is calling the "Gremlist." The Gremlist include a wide variety of genres (classic rock, country, '80s rock, classical, jazz, etc. - you name it, MusicGremlin has a genre for you) that subscription-based users can pick from. The lists are then downloaded to the device on a regular basis, so the variety of songs changes on a frequent basis, helping to eliminate the fear that "all my songs are always the same."

Other features that may end up on the device include FM radio, recording features, and a "chat server" that lets you speak with other MusicGremlin owners ("Hey, check out this song," kind of chat).

The device will likely have storage of between 1G-byte to 40G-bytes, MusicGremlin said. The battery life will be comparable to other music players, with power management controls built into the software. Because Wi-Fi can drain battery life quickly, the device will have the ability to turn off the radio when not being used for downloads. It will also be able to periodically "wake up" and poll the area for other MusicGremlin users, but will likely then shut off if none are found.

The hope is that the device comes out by Christmas 2004, or early 2005 at the latest, MusicGremlin officials said. If they make it by the end of this year, it will have somewhat proven one of my predictions for 2004 (link below), in which I predicted that Apple would go wireless with its iPod. While nothing is coming yet from Apple, at least MusicGremlin is following through on the wireless music player concept. Officials at the company assured me that they were working on this project long before my prediction column came out.

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Keith Shaw

Network World

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