4.175 docent, shustek

Thursday 05/25/2023

First up was to lead a tour. Supposedly “30 IEEE members” and I was the only docent signed up. I expected a crowd of engineers in mid-career, so they would know a lot. Wrong. It turned out to be 21, not 30, which was good news, and they were college students, ranging in age from 20-25, with a handful of 30-somethings. So I had to do a lot more explaining than I had expected. But they were fine.

Then off to the East Bay for an afternoon sorting more of the papers of Sandy Fraser. This session was more interesting than before because a whole box was documents from the middle 1990s and related to a project that Fraser was apparently promoting inside AT&T, to build a consumer product, a “personal music player”. This was the same era when Sony was promoting their “Minidisc” format, and Philips was promoting the “digital compact cassette”.

Sandy wrote many memos between 1992 and 1997 promoting his idea of a digital music player based on solid-state media. AT&T apparently owned some patents for high-quality digital audio compression, and he wanted to leverage those to get lots of music into the limited memory capacity of the day. It was clear to me that he came close to inventing something like the iPod.

I’m filing all these memos, and it was really interesting. However, unlike Steve Jobs, Fraser and his Bell Labs team didn’t have a clear picture of what would work as a consumer product — or any experience whatever with consumer marketing. When it came out in 2001, the iPod was a complete system, interfacing to Apple computers, with the iTunes app as a music store and music distribution system. Music publishers could just send their audio files to Apple and start earning cash from every iTunes download. I didn’t see any sign that Fraser thought about the support infrastructure, or a system of selling music.

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