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10 years ago, Koreans created the MP3 player

Mar 10,2008
The world’s first MP3 player, by Saehan Information Systems.
Given the presence of MP3 players virtually everywhere these days, it may seem odd that the coming-out party for the world’s first such player ended up in failure back in March 1998.
Then an oddity, the first MP3 player was made by a small Korean tech start-up company called Saehan Information Systems, which is now defunct. The MPman F10 hardly caused a ripple when it was seen for the first time at one of the Korean booths at the annual CeBIT product fair in Hanover, Germany. No one was quite sure what it was.
“No matter how the Korean staff tried to explain what an MP3 player was, people didn’t understand why they needed such a device because they could listen to music with CDs or cassettes. A few people accepted the MP3 player as something cool, but most people didn’t take it seriously,” said JR Bum, the vice president of local tech company MPIXAR, and an old hand who was around MP3 players in their early days.
No one then thought that the MP3 player would become a flagship portable music device, as ubiquitous as the earlier Walkman, and, through the iPod, one of the icons of the digital age. Currently, more than 150 million players are sold every year worldwide.
Despite its disappointing debut, Korean venture companies tried their hand at the new portable music device after Saehan put its prototype into mass production in May 1998.
A couple of other early generation MP3 players were also produced by companies here, including Digital Way, where Bum worked at the time.
In October 1998, Samsung Electronics, the nation’s largest electronics maker, ordered MP3 players from Digital Way and sold them under the Samsung name.
Even though the very first MP3 player only played about 10 songs, Korean companies quickly developed the players into multipurpose gadgets that could function as radios, dictionaries and video players.
A Korean MP3 player produced by Reigncom, was even called the future of digital life by Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, during his keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas in January 2005.

Apple’s dominant iPod.
However, as Apple launched the iPod nano the same year, and cheap MP3 players from China soon flooded the market, Korean MP3 player manufacturers, which once had a shining vision of the future, staggered.
Asked about the downfall of Korean MP3 players in the world market, Bum said: “MP3 players were made by the nation’s venture companies, who knew how to make them but did not have the money and power to promote the gadgets in the global market.
“Samsung joined the MP3 player market, but its priority was other audio goods, not MP3 players.”
To put it simply, Korea was sandwiched between Apple’s sleek and stylish iPods and cheap Chinese MP3 players.
With the advent of the iPod, Korean MP3 players, including the much-heralded Reigncom, went downhill.
To make matters worse, Korea’s high-end and ever-changing mobile phones have evolved into all-around gadgets as they play music, video clips and take pictures. This has decreased local demand for MP3 players.
“More than 99 percent of local mobile phones now have MP3 player functions, so people don’t need to buy MP3 players unless they are really into music,” Kim Se-hoon, an official from Samsung Electronics, said.
After suffering from harsh competition with the U.S. and China, however, local MP3 players are showing signs of rebounding.
Reigncom turned a profit in 2007 for the first time in three years as it reported a 59 percent growth in sales from a year ago with growing demand for a Mickey Mouse-shaped MP3 player called the M Player with a price tag of just 55,000 won ($58).
Samsung has also set its sights on selling more than 8 million MP3 players this year.
That’s because manufacturers believe the devices still have a high potential even though they have been around for 10 years.
“MP3 players are still not as widespread as CD players and Walkmans were because only people with access to computers can use MP3 players. In that sense, the MP3 market is still lucrative and Korean MP3 players are trying to compete,” Bum said.


By Sung So-young Staff Reporter [so@joongang.co.kr]



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