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Imerge Dishes Out Music with Hard Disc System

These days, the words "music storage" conjure up the image of a college student, high on Napster and low on funds, sitting in front of his computer gleefully downloading Metallica tracks in the wee hours of the morning.

These days, the words “music storage” conjure up the image of a college student, high on Napster and low on funds, sitting in front of his computer gleefully downloading Metallica tracks in the wee hours of the morning.

While Napster continues to rack up attorney’s fees, some technology companies have built a less legally contentious, and more promising, business model for music storage and delivery.

Enter Imerge, a spin off of the Generics Group, a technology consulting, development and investment company based in Cambridge, England. Founded in 1997, Imerge was established to build products around its XiVA software–technology that allows the gathering of disparate types of information in order to manipulate them and then stream them into multiple bit streams.
“What XiVA stands for is the intersection of the Internet, video and audio,” explained Scott Hommel, president of Imerge America in Herndon, Virginia. “The audio units that we make are really a demonstration of one thing that XiVA can do quite well, which is bring audio and video together, and audio and video from the Internet together, put it on to a hard drive, store it, organize it and then stream it again to multiple places, all at the same time.”

The audio unit that Hommel is referring to is SoundServer, a multi-room audio server that connects to the home stereo system. Constructed as a hard disk audio player, SoundServer is capable of storing thousands of tracks of music and playing them back in multiple rooms throughout the house. The user can upload their CDs to the hard drive, which then stores, organizes and manages the music library. Each SoundServer box is equipped with Internet-connection capabilities, and, through a partnership with Grace Note–the online music database (formerly CDDB)–the unit will collect information about each album, track and artist that is stored on it. Currently, SoundServer is available in two models: the S1000 single-room server, and the M1000 multi-room server. The company stocks units that handle two, four and six zones, but according to Hommel, will customize units to handle from eight to 16 zones, if necessary.

Hommel points out that Imerge’s 16-zone SoundServer units are popular on yachts, which tend to have a number of discrete zones, while users at home prefer the two or four zone units.

“What SoundServer does that you have never really been able to do before is to hold a very high-quality audio signal on a hard drive so that you have instant access to a collection of thousands of CDs,” Hommel said. “If you want to listen to a track off of a Bob Dylan album, and then you want to listen to Copeland’s Third Symphony, you can do it by programming the machine, and you get an instant changeover. If you use a disc changer, that would take a couple of minutes.

“We can also put, at the same time, Copeland into the living room and heavy metal into the kid’s room in the basement, out of the same unit,” Hommel went on to explain. “You don’t have to have a lot of discs lying around, you don’t have to have a large changer. This is all quite simple.”

This fall, Imerge plans to introduce the Home Media Server, which will allow users to play video back alongside their audio tracks. In addition, the company is partnering with various companies in the music industry in an effort to build its own music portal, whereby Imerge would have the ability to sell music that SoundServer users could then download onto their units. Imerge is also working on licensing deals with several companies that are interested in using the technology in their own products.

The most difficult obstacle in the product development process, Hommel admits, is that the people developing the technology move slower than the technology itself. “Technology moves forward so fast that by the time you build something, it’s out of date already,” he said. To overcome this obstacle, Hommel says he has to set a limit of how long you wait to launch a new product. “If you don’t do that, you will never get a product through the door, your investors will never invest another dime in you, you will never generate an ounce of revenue, and you will be out of business. What you have got to do is talk to your customers and let them know that today’s product will not be tomorrow’s product, and provide them with an upgrade path.”

At the same time, companies in Imerge’s market must all learn to deal with an unpredictable–and presently, confused–music industry. “One of the issues that looms, although I think it’s probably a licensing issue, is that the whole Napster routine has pushed the record manufacturers into putting copy protection on discs, which means that you would not be able to copy them to a hard drive server,” Hommel said. “I believe what will come of that is that the people who make those copy protection schemes will also provide a licensed hack to those schemes, so that we will simply have to pay a fee in order to build a piece of software into our units that will allow hard drives to read copy protection. I think that is what is going to happen, though I am not positive.”

Although it’s still unclear as to exactly how the record companies will handle digital music storage, Hommel is banking on the fact that they will see the monetary benefits of working with new mediums like SoundServer. “To get a revenue stream from companies like us would be very valuable to them, so there is a good reason for them to do it,” he said. “Certainly, they are positioning themselves today for that. The record companies know that the world is headed toward hard drives. Processing has become very cheap, memory is getting cheaper every day, and the cost of hard drives–high quality, very quiet, very reliable hard drives–has dropped dramatically and will continue to drop dramatically. That is where the world is headed.”

–Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer in Toronto, Canada.