CES - PC leads the tune for digital music

Convergence -- the notion that PCs and home electronics will merge into new consumer technology--has rarely created products many real people want. But at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the worlds are starting to blend in new, promising ways. And digital audio is front and center in the resulting first products.

Companies large and small are announcing and showing music-related products that are a little bit living room, a little bit PC. Among those diving in are tech behemoths, wireless and networking specialists, stereo manufacturers, startups, and music service providers.

The Chorus Grows

A Wireless Digital Media Adapter from Linksys (developed with Intel), Cd30's Network MP3 Players, Rockford Fosgate's Omnifi, Hewlett-Packard's Digital Music Receiver 5000, and a new version of Motorola's Simplefi are all examples. These small boxes connect to stereo systems and use Wi-Fi wireless networking to play music that's stored on PCs elsewhere in the home. Most of the products are scheduled to ship by the middle of 2003; prices are expected to fall in the US$199 to US$379 range.

Each interprets the basic notion a little differently. Hewlett-Packard, as you might expect from a company that manufactures photo printers and digital cameras, also gave its device the capability to grab photos from the PC for display on a TV. Audio manufacturer Rockford Fosgate, meanwhile, produced a box that strives to look and behave much like a traditional radio.

Rockford Fosgate also introduced a more offbeat variation on the theme: an Omnifi car stereo. Also equipped with Wi-Fi, the US$599 unit can download music or spoken audio from a PC during the night and store it on its 20GB hard drive, so it's ready for playback when you hit the road in the morning.

Complementing the PC

One characteristic all the new devices share is their aim to leverage the PC's proven skills at managing large collections of digital audio. PCs handle music well because "they have a database--you can sort content and make customized playlists, and you have all sorts of tools," says Lou Hughes, president of SimpleDevices, whose software is used in Motorola and Rockford Fosgate products. By contrast, "If you've ever tried to program a 200-disc CD player, you know it's incredibly hard."

Various stand-alone living room digital audio devices have come and gone over the past few years. But the boom in affordable Wi-Fi wireless networking provides the infrastructure to take music stored on the PC anywhere in the house, Hughes says. Wireless routers "are falling to US$49, and they'll be US$29 before long. This stuff is becoming mainstream."

Music Services Line Up

What kind of music will buyers of these products route around their homes? In some cases it will be audio tracks they've ripped themselves or downloaded (legally or not) from online sources. But providers of fee-based music services also plan to provide content for the new gadgets.

The Motorola and Rockford Fosgate products, for example, offer Listen.com's Rhapsody service as one source of music. And MusicMatch, developer of the popular MusicMatch Jukebox music player program, provides audio programming for Philips' Streamium, an Internet-enabled boom box that was also demonstrated at CES.

Adapting to the new hardware is a natural way for digital music providers to broaden their horizons beyond the PC, says Christopher Allen, MusicMatch senior vice president of marketing. "Look at where time is spent listening to music. It's cars at number one. The living room is number two, and portable devices are number three. PCs are number four."

Allen expects the Wi-Fi music devices will be hot gifts for Christmas 2003, followed by even greater popularity in 2004. And he predicts that prices will tumble to under US$100.