Matthew Hynes in 1999. Image: Boston Globe/Getty

The MP3 Player That Made Every Other MP3 Player Possible

The Diamond Rio PMP 300 could barely even hold a single album, but it was a hugely important device in the history of digital music.

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Apr 19 2017, 3:00pm

Matthew Hynes in 1999. Image: Boston Globe/Getty

"The Dave Matthews Band have a lot [of live MP3s] out because they allow bootlegging at their concerts," he said. "You can't get them anywhere else."

The guy in the above photo, Matthew Hynes, was just one of many college freshmen with a T1 line who got an in-depth education in digital music during the early months of 1999. To prove the point, the Emerson College student showed up in The Boston Globe in March of that year, holding an early portable MP3 player in his hand.

Boston's higher education facilities were a hotbed of file-sharing activity, by the way. Less than two miles away, Northeastern dorm rat Shawn Fanning was programming Napster, which he would release in June of that year. (In a 2000 Spin piece about his industry-shaking freshman year, Fanning name-dropped another notable file-sharing platform of the era, Scour.net. Free piece of trivia: Scour.net was co-founded by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.)

Anyway, about that MP3 player: The Diamond Rio PMP 300, the first successful MP3 player, was the product of a company that was then better known for its 3D graphics cards. It was fairly small, about the size of a deck of cards, and could store around 30 minutes of music with its whopping 32 megs of memory at the then-standard 128-Kbps rate. (Fortunately, it was expandable via a SmartMedia slot, allowing users to split their Dave Matthews Band concerts onto chunks of flash memory.)

Despite its weaknesses, it was well-regarded compared to its competition of the era, which included Sony's Minidisc player. It was nowhere near good enough to please the audiophiles, nor did its technology stand a chance against the added layer of polish the iPod put on digital music.

But Diamond did make it possible for the iPod to legally exist. Soon after the Rio PMP 300 went on the market in 1998, the Recording Industry Association of America sued Diamond, claiming that the device was illegal under the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992, which required a copy-management system to be installed on digital audio recording devices.

But the Rio didn't record anything. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that, since the music generally came from a computer hard drive that did more than play MP3s, it did not fall under the definition of a "digital audio recording device" as defined by the law—ensuring that MP3 players could legally be sold in the US.

The recording industry's well-laid legal plans went up in smoke—and now we can carry MP3s wherever we want.

Re-Exposure is an occasional Motherboard feature where we look back on delightful old tech photos from wire service archives.

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