Michael Robertson and MP3

Michael Robertson, photo from North County Times
Michael Robertson was born in Orange County, California, in 1968 and moved to San Diego to attend the University of California, earning a B.A. degree in 1990 in cognitive science. UCSD had become a magnet for computer research and development, with the creation of the Supercomputer Center in 1985 funded by the National Science Foundation. Robertson worked as a Macintosh consultant for the Center, and began to write the "Mr. Mac" weekly columns for the local ComputerEdge magazine founded in 1983 by Kevin Leap. As an early user of the Macintosh computer introduced by Apple in 1984, Robertson experimented with the multimedia potential of personal computers. Apple was one of the pioneers of the digital revolution that transformed analog books and pictures and songs into bytes and pixels and CDs. Robertson founded the MR Mac Software company in 1994 to develop networking tools, and Media Minds Inc. in 1996 to develop digital photo albums. However, the most important computer revolution of the decade was the Internet, using the WWW hypertext software introduced by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1991 and the Mosaic web browser developed by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at NCSA in 1993. Robertson started his Z Company to develop web sites, and discovered the rapidly growing web traffic in MP3 files. During the 1980s, the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) had worked with the Fraunhofer Institute and the Friedrich Alexander University in Erlangen to develop a compression method to transmit high-quality audio files over common telephone lines using the Compact Disc standard developed by Philips/Sony in 1980. The solution was perceptual audio coding, eliminating sound frequencies that were redundant or unnecessary or beyond the range of the human auditory system. Different amounts of compression were represented by "layer" algorithms: the best quality was a compression ratio of 1:4, known as Layer 1.
Winamp 1.0
The most efficient ratio was Layer 3, compressing sound 1:12, or reducing the size of the audio file 12 times compared with the original CD standard of 44.1kHz 16-bit sampling. This compression became known as MPEG Layer 3, or MP3. Testing of this compression system began in 1987 and was finally implemented in 1990, just as the World Wide Web was about to emerge. By 1992, college students and hackers were distributing MP3 files on community bulletin board systems using 14.4k modems and, after 1994, using 28.8k modems. Robertson decided to start a web site with the domain name of "MP3.com" that he purchased from Martin Paul who had earlier registered the name using his own initials and the number 3. Robertson also purchased the "MP3 shopping mall" in the Netherlands to obtain operating software, and in November 1997 he opened his portal MP3.com offering free music downloads from new and unknown artists unable to get a standard recording contract. In 1997, college drop-out Justin Frankel developed the first popular MP3 player called WinAmp at his parents' home in Sedona AZ, and in 1998 formed Nullsoft with partner Rob Lord (a play on the Microsoft name with "null" being smaller than "micro").

MP3 was a music revolution, and Robertson's portal website became the #1 music site on the Internet with 3 million hits monthly. he attracted investors who urged him to move to San Francisco, closer to "Silicon Valley," but Robertson considered San Diego fertile ground for technological innovation. Irwin Jacobs had founded
San Diego Supercomputer Center
Qualcomm in 1987 that developed the CDMA cell phone technology selected in 1995 as a world standard. Kyocera had come to San Diego in 1971 with the first Japanese manufacturing plant in California, and expanded in 1987 with a modern semiconductor facility. PacketVideo was founded in 1998 to develop "mobilmedia" for cell phones and pioneered MPEG-4 video compression used in 3G wireless networks. The first MP3 Summit was held July 2, 1998, at the UCSD Price Center in San Diego, attended by digital music leaders Scott Jamar of a2bmusic, Xing CEO Hassan Miah, music lawyer Robert Kohn, Gene Hoffman founder of Goodnoise, the first Internet music label, Geffen Records producer Jim Griffen, and Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg, one of the founders of MP3 compression technology. By 1999, 50 million MP3 players had been downloaded for free to play music on home computers, and the Diamond Rio was the new Walkman of the digital era. In May, RealAudio offered its RealJukebox and 500,000 copies were downloaded in 3 days. In June, Shawn Fanning released the first version of the Napster peer-to-peer file sharing software, allowing anyone to share music libraries with anyone else connected to a computer. By 2000, Robertson and MP3.com were attracting artists such Tom Petty and Alanis Morisette, but on April 28, the U. S. District Court ruled that a part of the download service called "my.mp3.com" violated copyright law by allowing songs from commercial CDs to be downloaded. Robertson sold MP3.com to Vivendi Universal who, in 2003, sold it to C/Net. Although MP3.com has disappeared, it had profound influence on the music industry and Internet file-sharing.


1999-2004 by Steven E. Schoenherr. All rights reserved.

revised 1/13/04 by Steven Schoenherr | Return to Recording Technology History