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the cd writer

Computer CD Music Recorders

Hugh Bennett

February 2000 | Sometimes the obvious bears repeating: things don't always work out as planned. This is especially true in electronics, where consumers' interests often run counter to manufacturer expectations. Such is the case in the world of audio, where consumer electronic giants are pushing sonically superior DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD technologies on a market more interested in products which offer value and convenience. If the sound isn't quite as good, so what? Fortunately, the more practical computer industry has been able to fill the gap by leading the charge into uncharted convergence territory with personal Web music devices such as the Rio, MPMan, and Nomad. Additions to the lineup include portable, home, and car compressed music CD players like the MamboX, Brujo, and D'music. Meanwhile, enjoying unprecedented popularity, computer-based CD-R/RW drives continue the assault by providing vastly broader mainstream appeal than do the Internet peripherals.

CD recorders are selling like hotcakes, but despite this overwhelming success, several companies feel they can reach an untapped market by promoting recorders as consumer audio products rather than as removable storage devices which incidentally happen to have audio capabilities (as is done currently). Aimed squarely at teenagers and technically challenged individuals, this new breed of "CD music recorder" currently includes Hewlett-Packard's CD-Writer Music, TDK's veloCD ReWriter, Ricoh's MediaMaster MP3 Music, and MicroBoards' PlayWrite MP3.

By accessing existing CD collections or compressed music files downloaded from the Web, any computer-based CD recorder can write Red Book-compliant audio CDs playable on any home, car, or personal CD player. And any "music recorder" can record the full range of CD formats and data types, given appropriate software. So what sets music recorders apart from their storage cousins is nothing more than the software included in the package and, more importantly, the marketing.

The best example of this marketing strategy is Hewlett-Packard's new CD-Writer Music, which is a standard 4x4x6 recorder in all respects except that the bundle doesn't ship with any programs for writing data discs. It simply includes a customized version of Sonic Foundry's Siren music jukebox software. With the simplicity of a plug-and-play USB interface as well as focused packaging and promotion, HP is banking that the CD-Writer Music will capture audio-crazy people who wouldn't otherwise buy a CD recorder. Unfortunately, it's a longshot that this will be as successful as the marketers project.

One important reason the product may fall short of sales expectations is that the software included with the CD-Writer Music only allows the unit to write to special CD-R consumer audio discs rather than to the general-purpose media commonly used by computer-based CD recorders. In HP's defense, they say they took this unprecedented step because they felt that specifically marketing the CD-Writer Music as an audio device puts them on uncertain legal ground with respect to U.S. copyright laws, specifically the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992. In exchange for granting individuals the right to make digital copies of copyrighted audio material, the law requires that devices designed or primarily marketed for making digital audio recordings for private use must implement the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS). Manufacturers and importers of such digital recorders and blank media also pay royalties on their products for the benefit of the artists, performers, and publishers.

Unfortunately, consumer audio CD-R discs are not always easy to find and are much more expensive than general-purpose media. Anyone aware of this ahead of time will surely be slow to purchase the unit, knowing they will be required to buy these more expensive discs. What is more conceivable is that most buyers won't know the difference between the two types of discs, proceed to purchase the wrong ones, and curse the recorder while lining up for a refund. Some argue that it's easy enough to buy the CD-Writer Music and then buy any number of other software packages separately to get around the disc restriction, but this ignores the fact that it's surely a lot cheaper to just buy an everyday CD recording bundle. And leaving open such a loophole undermines the credibility of HP's argument about taking a conservative position with respect to copyright law. Generally speaking, the CD-Writer Music also sends the dangerous message to the music recording industry that computer peripheral companies might be willing to pay royalties on multipurpose devices such as CD recorders.

A more sensible approach has just been undertaken by TDK with its recently introduced veloCD ReWriter. A higher-performance 8x4x32 product utilizing Plextor's first ATAPI recorder, the veloCD ReWriter ships with not only a full suite of "CD ripping" and other audio related software, but also a complete package of programs for writing data and Video CDs. It also uses general-purpose CD-R discs.

Only time will tell, but it's a good bet that specialized CD music recorders such as the CD-Writer Music will be yet another example of how things don't always work out as planned. There's no doubt that HP hit the nail on the head when the company identified an untapped audio market for computer CD recorders. They failed, however, to realize that sometimes marketing can be simply a matter of changing emphasis on an existing product and thereby hitting a different target, rather than releasing specialized products to satisfy each category of user.

Hugh Bennett (hugh_bennett@compuserve.com), an EMedia contributing editor and co-columnist for THE CD WRITER, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems Inc., a company based in London, Ontario, Canada offering CD and DVD-ROM recording, mass reproduction, and consulting services as well as CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RAM hardware, duplication systems, software, and blank media sales.

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