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Bragging rights to the world's first MP3 player

If you think you know what the first MP3 player was, think again, writes CNET MP3.com's Eliot Van Buskirk, who explains how tech lore was changed by a lawsuit.

Ask even seasoned MP3 buffs about the first MP3 player, and they're almost certain to name the Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300.

If they really know their stuff, they'll even tell you it came out in late 1998. They're wrong either way, although you shouldn't be too harsh on them. Their mistake is understandable.

Say it with me: "MPMan."
The Diamond Rio's false status as "the first MP3 player" is practically cemented in technology lore, so before it's too late, I want to set the record straight. The world's first mass-produced hardware MP3 player was Saehan's MPMan, sold in Asia starting in the late spring of 1998.
The Diamond Rio's false status as "the first MP3 player" is practically cemented in technology lore.
It was released in the United States as the Eiger Labs MPMan F10/F20 (two variants of the same device) in the summer of 1998, a few months before the Rio.

Most tech-savvy types wrongly think Diamond's device was first because, like nearly every other major development in digital music, the Rio brought with it a spectacular flurry of legal wrangling and the attendant media exposure. (Back in those days, you were nobody in the digital-music business unless the labels had sued you.)

So why did the Recording Industry Association of America single out Diamond as the first defendant in its doomed battle against digital music rather than targeting Saehan-Eiger Labs, which was the actual "patient zero?" It's simple: California-based Diamond Multimedia was far easier for the record labels to sue than the MPMan's Korean manufacturer. If the RIAA had wanted to sue Saehan instead, it would have had to find a U.S.-based office or subsidiary of the company, win the case in court, and then try to convince a Korean court to enforce the ruling. What a hassle.

What went wrong?
If the RIAA had gone global and sued Saehan instead, perhaps Eiger Labs would be as recognizable today as the Rio brand is. Or maybe Saehan should have established an office in America, where it could be properly sued or feted for its new device.

Photo: CNET Networks
The Eiger Labs F20 is shown next to
the latest 40GB iPod.

It would have been a drastic measure, but as things stand today, Eiger Labs remains largely anonymous.

Even the blink tag-laden EigerLabs.com, which used to proudly display the words "World's first MP3 player," seems to have finally bitten the digital dust. (There's nothing at the site, although the domain is registered until Oct. 6, 2005.)

So if Saehan-Eiger Labs produced the world's first flash-based MP3 player, you might be wondering who earned that distinction for hard-drive players like Apple Computer's iPod.

The world's first "iPod"
Credit for this goes to Compaq's Systems Research Center and the Palo Alto Advanced Development group--essentially a bunch of engineers from Compaq's laptop division who realized that hard drives could replace flash memory in MP3 players and enable them to hold far more music. When I reviewed the MP3 player these groups created (the Hango/Remote Solutions Personal Jukebox PJB-100), I was blown away by the then unheard of 6GB capacity, crystal-clear sound and ample display, compared with the skimpy 32MB devices I'd seen previously, such as the MPMan and Rio.

Here comes the irony: In 1998, Compaq's engineers made the first hard drive-based MP3 player and licensed it to a Korean company, Hango, that didn't do much with it. In 2001, the first iPod came out. In 2002, Hewlett-Packard acquired Compaq. In 2004, HP made a deal with Apple to distribute HP-branded iPods.

I know I'm reducing the situation, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to assert that the entity now known as HP beat Apple in the race to make a high-capacity portable music player by three years--an eternity in the world of MP3 players--and still somehow lost.

I promise that the next MP3 Insider column will be a bit more forward-looking, but I just had to make it clear, once and for all:

First MP3 player in the world: the Saehan-Eiger Labs F10/F20. First hard-drive-based MP3 player in the world: the Hango/Remote Solutions Portable Jukebox PJB-100.

Thank you.