MP3 audio is setting the music industry on its ear.
Through MP3 -- a small-size digital file format boasting CD-quality sound -- you can listen to sound files from a pager-size player on your belt, through a streaming audio connection on your PC, through tiny earphones or huge speakers. You can pick your favorite tracks, burn custom CDs, e-mail files to friends, listen to stuff recorded 30 years ago or last night.
And much of the software -- music files, MP3 players and other accoutrements -- is free.
It's so cool, so slick, so revolutionary that there must be a catch.
And here it is: As many as 1 million MP3 sound files sprinkled around the Internet are illegal.
Last summer -- around the time that MP3 pulled ahead of sex as the No. 1 term submitted to search engines -- the recording industry got serious about tracking down pirated music online.
Last Thursday, the industry came out swinging, releasing details of a coordinated anti-piracy program in more than 20 countries.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry says it wants to pave the way for musicians and their record labels to deliver music legally over the Net. To do so, it will seek to introduce copyright legislation overseas and bust Internet providers whose customers use their equipment to store stolen tunes.
MP3 hit the mass market a year ago, with the release of Diamond Multimedia's Rio MP3 player.
The Rio, which stores audio files on flash memory, unleashed downloaded music: instead of sitting at your PC while favorite tunes played in the background, users could store them on the Rio and head out to have adventures.
"Sitting at your computer and listening to downloaded music was a big yawn," said Joe Butt, a consumer technology analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
At $118 to $300 each, the MP3 players aren't cheap. But they're the size of a pager and have no moving parts, making them ideal for listening while exercising or wandering around.
"Every teen-ager I know wants one of these things," said Amy Hill of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.
The second-generation Rio player just hit stores, featuring twice as much memory, a Universal Serial Bus link and software for both Mac and PC. Other manufacturers will release MP3 players this fall, including Samsung, I-Jam (sold only on the Internet), AudioVox, Casio and RCA.
Atlanta-based i2Go.com just introduced eGo, a $299 player designed for cars....