Posts Tagged ‘Innovations’

Briton Invented iPod, DRM and On-Line Music in 1979

09 Sep


Picture credit: Steve Nicholson

Today Apple is almost certain to announce, at the very least, a new, taller iPod Nano. But amidst the hype surrounding the "Let's Rock" event, it's easy to get so caught up in the iPod's future that we forget where it came from.

The iPod was not invented in 2001 in Cupertino, California. It was invented in England in 1979, by “serial inventor” Kane Kramer.

This is not a story of intellectual property theft, or of big companies putting the screws on the little man. Instead, it is just the retelling of another old story — the story of a lone, visionary inventor and his inability to market a product that appeared way before its time.

Kramer came up with the idea for a pocket-sized, portable solid state music player with a friend, James Campbell. Kramer was 23, Campbell 21. The IXI System had a display screen and buttons for four-way navigation. In a report presented to investors in 1979, the IXI was described as being the size of a cigarette packet. Is this sounding familiar yet?

Back in 1979, a memory chip would store a paltry three and a half minutes of music. Kramer fully expected this to improve, and confidently foresaw a market for reliable, high quality digital music players which would be popular with both consumers and the record labels. It could actually be argued that he was still ahead of Apple after the firat iPod went on sale — that had a hard drive and Kramer had moved onto flash memory years earlier.

Much has been made of Apple somehow “stealing” the technology. But the patent did what all patents do, whether used or not. It lapsed, and whether Apple took the idea from there or from somewhere else, it was all perfectly legitimate. In fact, when Apple was suing (and counter-sued by) in 2006 it cited the invention as “prior art” to dispute Burst’s patents. Apple even called Kramer in to give evidence.

But anyone can dream up a magic futuristic gadget. That’s where James Campbell came in. Campbell was an electronics whizz and between them the men came up with four prototypes. According to Kramer’s website, a fifth, pre-production unit actually went on sale at the APRS exhibition at Earls Court, London.


But the really surprising part of Kramer’s invention is not the hardware but the infrastructure behind it. It eerily foreshadows the iTunes Store and pretty much any modern online music store.

Content was to be stored on a central server and distributed to music stores vie telephone line (remember — in these days there was no internet and almost no home computers). Customers would take their players into the store and buy music which would be loaded onto the IXI chips inside (the chips were removable, like a tiny cassette). This alone would obviate the need for physical media, but take a look at a few points from Kramer’s investor pitch to see just how close he got to the future:

Immediacy of delivery

No physical inventory and therefore no production costs

Live performances taped and then made immediately available

Entire back catalogs could be put on sale at almost no cost

New, risky artists can be promoted with low cost

Instant micro-billing, handled centrally

Vending machines for self-purchasing — located in bars, filling stations, supermarkets (it seems quaint now that these were to be coin operated)

Uncanny. Kramer also foresaw DRM, or digital rights management, before it even had a name. This is worth transcribing (the original was written on a typewriter):

For every record or tape of conventional format sold, over one copy is made in an illegal form.

Therefore over 100% of the total sale potential is lost.

With IXI, all programme material (recordings) is stored and transmitted on a high security enclosed digital network, all terminals being supplied under license to retailers. Because of the attention to security, it is impossible to break into the system undetected, thus preventing bootlegging of the programme material by fraudulent means.

The first stage at which the digital encoded programme material is converted to analogue (audio) signals, is when the IXI CHIP is played back in the home playback unit.

It can be seen from the above, that the format prevents mass copying of programme material by fraudulent traders and home copying.

Though it is easy to laugh at this optimism, it’s possible that Kramer foresaw the recording industry’s huge reluctance to online delivery and attempted to diffuse it. What is really laughable, though, is that the same recording industry is still thinking in exactly the same way almost thirty years later.

Now Kramer is working on something called the "Bully Button", a wearable recording device which can be discretely activated by kids (or adults) when they are set upon by bullies. It's a laudable idea, but the leap into the future he made with the IXI and it's ecosystem. Back in the 1970s, Kramer was thinking way ahead of his time. Sadly for him, it took the market until now to catch up.

Development of the first MP3 player [Ken Kramer]

IXI Systems Report 1979 [Direct pdf]

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