Mon, 14 Aug 2000

Creative aims high in world of digital audio

By Zatni Arbi

JAKARTA (JP): I have a short list of technology companies that I have a lot of respect for. One of them is the Singapore-based Creative Technology Ltd. So, when I got an invitation last month to their launch of Nomad Jukebox, I jumped at the opportunity and said "Yes!"

It turned out that there were more than a hundred IT journalists from all over the world invited to the event. We were hauled from our hotels on the Friday morning to their headquarters in the well-landscaped Singapore International Business Park. The spacious lobby of the Creative Resource building immediately confirmed my mental image of the company.

Why do I have so much respect for this company? It was the first from this part of the world that set the industry standard in the audio subsystem for PCs. No, I did not have the first generation Sound Blaster soundcard. The first soundcard that I bought back in 1991 was the 8-bit Pro Audio Spectrum from a company called Media Vision. But I have never heard of this company again after they released the Pro Audio Spectrum 16 and Pro Audio Studio soundcards one or two years later.

In contrast, the Sound Blaster soundcards from Creative have been topping the charts of editors' choice in computer magazines year after year ever since the products were introduced, and won a lot of accolades in 1989. Buy any software with the audio feature today, such as a game or a multimedia encyclopedia title, and chances are you'll see that a system requirement is "a SoundBlaster compatible soundcard". That is how well received the products have been.

"We are still making the 16-bit Sound Blaster cards, which is already eight years old," Angeline Chiang, Creative's Channel Marketing Specialist, said to me as we toured their factory floors. A soundcard is basically a piece of hardware that we add to a PC to enable it to produce sounds, including music from compact discs. We connect the speakers to the soundcard. Today, the premium soundcards from this company are the Sound Blaster Live! Series, which features Environment Audio Extension (EAX) technology for an enhanced audio experience.

Over the years, Creative has expanded its product line to include CD-ROM drives with or without a remote control, graphics cards, DVD-ROM drives, CD writers, speakers, PC cameras, modems, etc.

In the lobby of the main building, I encountered a Creative PC, which has all the video and audio ports that you can think of right on the front panel.

"This PC is pretty expensive, because it is meant to be used as a high-end multimedia entertainment center," said Toh Sork Lee, Sales Manager at Creative's Asia Pacific Group. The Creative PC is sold only in selected markets.

In their complex, as one would expect, there is a mini museum that tells the history of the company. It started in 1981, when Sim Wong Hoo, Creative's founder, chairman and CEO, was still a young engineer and thought that a personal computer should also be able to produce quality sounds and not be confined to the annoying beep emanating from its tiny speaker. His company has definitely come a long way from a US$6,000 startup company in a small house in a back street of Singapore to become the first Singaporean company to list on the NASDAQ and the setter of standards in multimedia PCs.


With a lot of expertise and experience in the audio field, it is no surprise that Creative Lab was also quick to embrace the MP3 technology. But it saw more than just an addition of sounds to the otherwise silent PCs. It saw a new trend in how people entertain themselves using the new technology. And if there is a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) that enables us to carry our office in our pocket, why not Personal Digital Entertainment that gives us music wherever we go. MP3 is the holy grail of the PDE.

"But we are not in the business of encouraging people to pirate copyrighted materials," Sim Wong Hoo quickly added in his welcome speech.

Creative's PDE products actually fall into three categories. Firstly, there is the desktop products which include the Sound Blaster family of soundcards -- Graphics/3D Blaster, Video Blaster, Modem Blaster, Broadband Blaster, PC-DVD Encore and other Blaster drives. What characterizes all these products is that they all have to be attached to a PC to function.

The second category includes Internet appliances such as the NOMAD family of portable digital audio players and the WebCam Go line of PC cameras. Both the PDE desktop products and the Internet appliances can be used to access PDE Internet applications and services as well as online MP3 libraries, of course.

A portable MP3 player can download MP3 files from the PC through the USB or other connections, and then store them on its flash memory or hard disk. The files in turn can be downloaded from the Internet (remember Napster?) or "ripped" from a compact disc.

Creative was not the first to come up with portable MP3 players. In fact, it was the Rio from Diamond Multimedia that broke the ground and not without causing a big uproar in the recording industry.

Creative then caught up with Diamond with its Nomad, which was followed by Nomad II and then the sleek Nomad II MG portable digital music players. The latest product is the Nomad Jukebox, which features a 6 GB hard disk and can store 150 CDs worth of music. This was the product being launched during last month's event in Singapore.

There were other interesting hardware and software products that were demonstrated in the showroom. One of them was the BlasterKey, a 49-note touch-sensitive electronic piano that can help us compose music in MP3 format. In a lot of ways, however, the BlasterKey resembled my 10-year old Miracle Piano Teaching System, only the Miracle did not speak MP3. By the way, if you're familiar with the Cambridge SoundWorks speakers, the company has also been acquired by Creative. Cambridge Soundworks speakers are now used in Sony's PlayStation 2.

Creative vowed that they would come up with a great new PDE product at least once every six months. They will have to, as the market for MP3 players will soon be crowded with cool gadgets from all sorts of vendors. This week, for example, Compaq is scheduled to launch its own portable MP3 player.

At any rate, Creative has promised to let me test-drive a US$ 499 Nomad Jukebox. I have seen some of its exciting features, and I'm looking forward to reviewing it for you. (