Staying In: Net Gains - The Sound of Music

netgains@independent.co.uk

www.mp3.com

This will undoubtedly be the year of the Internet. Again. It's an easy prediction; virtually every year of the last decade could justifiably lay claim to the title. The Web's exponential growth continues unabated, but it's worth asking which aspect of the medium will begin to take off over the next year. In Britain, this is always fairly easy. You simply have to look at what's happening in America. My guess is that CD-quality music will be the next big thing.

MP3 files - compressed sound data with virtually the same sound quality as compact discs - have become extremely widespread over the past year or so, despite the attempts of big music companies legally to subdue the format. The key to this explosion is a big advance in data-compression techniques: it's fairly straightforward these days to squeeze a single album track into well under 5 megabytes without any appreciable loss of sound quality. Bear in mind that the average pop song typically takes up about 50 megabytes on a CD - this is because the compression ratio used on today's CDs was developed back in the mid-1970s. In effect, it is now possible to download an entire album from the Internet over a phone line. With CD cutters now commonplace and easily available, anyone can readily make their own compilation CDs, or more worryingly, for the record companies anyway, pirate music with ease. This is the crux of their argument against the format and why they'd be much happier if it went away. But it won't.

I managed to find an illegal copy of Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha" on a popular MP3 website, and on a fast connection it only took five minutes to download. However, despite all this doom and gloom, record companies still have some breathing space. Apart from the time it takes home users with normal telephone connections to download large files, MP3 technology isn't particularly user-friendly. To download and upload files, you need an array of encoders and decoders. A lot of these are shareware but for the moment at least, MP3 remains the domain of dedicated techies. Some of the MP3 music on newsgroups will be illegal copies of popular tracks, and since being closed down by the threat of legal action early last year, many of the better MP3 sites have yet to resurface. However, it only seems a matter of time.

Y2K

www.year2000.com

On this day next year, after the Millennium Bug has struck, will your computer be a useless lump of plastic? Will the world's military computers have unleashed armageddon on the human race? Because we live in a global electronic community, one major fear is that, for example, a banking collapse caused by the bug in one country could have a huge knock-on effect around the world - it would be like dropping a stone in a pond and watching the ripples spread outwards. We would all be affected in some way.

Your home computer will almost certainly be OK - Apple Macintoshes have long been 2000 compliant, as are most modern PCs. More likely, if you believe the doomsayers, is that you won't be able to use your computer because the system that runs the national grid will have shut down.

Dedicated Internet users will be the first to know about the bug. Even minor tremors in the computer world will affect the worldwide network. It's inconceivable that the Internet won't be affected in some way even if the problem does turn out to be minimal. This Year 2000 site is an excellent starting point for keeping yourself up to speed with the issue.

Altavista

www.altavista.com

It's a classic question: just why is the sky blue? Last week, I mentioned Sherlock, a feature in the operating system of new Apple Macs, which understands questions typed in English, and searches the Internet for answers. In its advertising for the software feature, Apple has been using the blue sky question as an example. As some people have pointed out, however, the search engine Altavista also has a similar feature, which, I can report, works perfectly. So, to find out the answer to why the sky is blue you should visit http://home.ucar.edu/ucargen/education/bluesky.html.

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