From the time the Saehan ‘MP Man’ first hit our shops in 1998, a new age of music listening was being born. An age that would not only trample on and supersede all other existing formats, but would ultimately prise control of our playlists away from the Record companies, and into our own hands. Though the MP3 format had existed on our computers for a year or two prior, the MP Man was to become the world’s first portable MP3 Player. It would help crack open a door of digital opportunity that would soon fill with lawsuits, ipods, streaming services and music capable phones. It would turn every one of us into our own mini DJs and it would threaten to bankrupt and up-end the entire music establishment. So why, if the MP Man was such a milestone and influential machine, have so few people ever heard of it?
Creating the MP Format:
MP3 was not actually an unknown format in 1998. It had first been invented back in 1989 and by 1997 was available to use on home computers via the AMP MP3 Playback Engine. I remember myself at this time having MP3 music on my computer, but because that music remained on your desktop or laptop, its convenience and therefore long term use seemed rather limited.
If one looks at the hardware itself, then the first prototype solid state music player (ie has no moving parts) was actually invented by a British inventor named Kane Kramer who took out a patent for one way back in 1981. However, as the machine in question never materialised and Kramer could not afford to renew his own patent, the patent expired in 1988 and went back into the public domain.
The Birth of the MP Man
Music folklore tells of a chance observation on a plane flying between America and Seoul as the initial spark for this big idea. In March 1997 a General Manager at Samsung named Mr. Moon was on a plane reading through some work-related documents on his computer and these included some files about the MP3 format. When he took his headphones off and looked beside him he saw he was sitting beside a man listening to music on his Minidisk player. Moon was instantly struck by the realisation that the MP3 format would actually be the perfect format to use on a personal stereo because the music could be easily stored, preserved and transferred in and out via a common computer.
Moon reputedly took his brainwave idea to the then President of Samsung Yin Zhonglong, but for various reasons was met with little enthusiasm. At the time Samsung was going through some financial and structural difficulties and had just begun a major re-organisation of the company. Indeed as the Asian financial turmoil continued through 1997, Mr Moon himself was to leave Samsung in Autumn and found work instead heading up a small technology firm called Saehan Information Systems. Saehan had been relatively strong in the Computerized Textile Industry since 1973 but before the MPMan had only really dabbled in consumer electronics. As the new president, Mr Moon was in the perfect position to push through his personal MP3 player idea.
The first MP Man, Model F10, was showcased at the CeBIT show in Hannover then released in Korea and Japan on 2nd May 1998 and cost an expensive 59,800 Yen (equivalent to £271) for the 64MB model, or 39800 Yen (£180) for the smaller 32MB version. The player was available in Gold, pink, silver, black and blue and had a rechargeable battery and docking station. Against today’s players that are mostly measured in their 10s of gigga-bites the memory space on these initial machines looks positively laughable. As 32Mbs would only allow you to hold about 8x 3.5 minute songs maximum, the smaller MP Man could not even hold a full album of music. The transfer speed between the computer and the machine was also very slow. On the plus side the machine weighed merely 65g and because there were no moving parts the sound could reach 70 dbs, the distortion rate for songs was an amazing 0.1%, didn’t skip, and it could run for a very impressive 8 hours off a single battery.
Initial sales proved slow, but none the less as a ground-breaking object, media interest in the new machine was strong and in the end it attained a good amount of worldwide press coverage. One of the international distribution companies very quick off the mark asking to retail the MPMan was the US firm of Eiger. Not long after its Asian release, the F10 player had been simplified and re-released as the F20 model for retailing across Europe and the US during the summer of 98. The F20 did away with the colours (as far as i can tell it was only offered in black), removed the docking station and rechargeable battery and instead relied on a single AA battery. It was also only available in the smaller 32Mb size though it could be expanded. Finally, and incase anyone was unsure otherwise, the European boxes at least were firmly emblazoned with the words “The World’s First MP3 Player in your Pocket”! Not so subtle I know.
Competition and the decline of the MPMan
Despite Mr Moon’s lightbulb moment back in may of 1997, there had actually been quite a few other people beginning to look at the comsumer potential for the MP3 format. Although Saehan made it to market first, the infamous Diamond Rio pmp300 was hot on its tail being released only two months later on 15th sept 1998. Merely a few months later by the end of 1998 the Rio seemed already to have become the MP3 player of choice, and the MP Man sadly and quietly slipped into obscurity.
There are probably several reasons for this shift and decline. The first was that Saehan was comparatively quite a small firm and had neither the financial means nor marketing expertise to push through a heavy and slick advertising campaign. Secondly the limited memory size of the player made it a great novelty for many purchasers, but not really practical for long term use. The name and branding was also perhaps a little too off-beat for our tastes. Right from the start Mr Moon and Saehan had understood that the financial potential lay not in the machine itself but in the music download service that would run alongside it. At the time Saehan did not have the means to provide this service but one need only look at itunes to see how that potential was latter tapped. Finally and probably most importantly, MPMan got overshadowed by the Diamond Rio which would have inevitably affected its sales. Saehan released at a time when the mainstream music industry were feeling particularly vulnerable. Their fear was that this new MP3 platform could bypass one of their most lucrative income streams since people were suddenly able to rip music from conventional albums and in turn listen to it, all for free. The industry hit back with lawsuits where it could, but as Saehan was not an American or European firm this made them much harder to attack than the Californian based Diamond Multimedia who produced the Rio MP3 machines. While the ensuing law-suits and side-stepping must have been tough for Diamond, in the end the extensive press coverage the case received made them a household name.
So how should history rate the MpMan? It is fair to say that it is not the most stylish gadget to look at and despite its potential could not even house a full album of music. It lacked the polished finess of other music tech icons such as the first Sony Walkman or the ipod of 2001, and also failed to capture people’s hearts and wallets the way the Diamond Rio or Creative Zen MP3 Players did. Perhaps it was a bit too black or a bit too utilitarian- who knows? The battery power was indeed quite amazing and one must also remember that it was the first personal music player that should not skip. A major selling point to many people at the time.
I have yet to find any concrete facts relating to the actual number of MP Man units sold with only one Chinese source suggesting less than 10,000 units. To my mind this number may refer to the F10 model only as the F20s worldwide distribution must have surely sold it more than that (perhaps the low tens of thousands but nothing like the 200,000 units the Diamond Rio would go on to sell).
Really despite the MP Man’s drawbacks there is one basic fact remaining- as the box attests to itself they were the 1st and that surely must count for something! It is perhaps unfair to compare the first of anything with later competitors and instead we should recognise what it did rather than what it didn’t. It was the first personal player to help open Pandora’s box regarding digital music and we have never looked back since……….
The images are all my own and if used must be attributed to historictech.com.
The information for this piece has come from as many decent global sources online as I can find. Sadly many of these sources contradict each other quite strongly so if you feel there are genuine inaccuracies that need adjusting please do let me know. Where possible I went to contemporary write-ups from the late 90s or reassessments that looked to come from researched (often non-English) works. Sadly most blog posts or articles about the MPMan merely rehash the same details around and around in circles, so I hope you find the little extra depth here of use. A few of the more useful and interesting sources found were: