I’ve got one program of music running in my main system, another streaming to my desktop speakers, and a third one—a small music library on my computer’s hard drive—just a mouse click away. While chatting on the phone, I copied some CDs to play in the car. I’ve just made a compilation disc by clicking and dragging a dozen songs into a playlist. I’m a one-man media empire, thanks to the Olive MUSICA—a leading example of a new niche of home-entertainment products, adroitly playing multiple roles as CD player, CD burner, hard-disc recorder, and wireless- or Ethernet-connected music source. A hi-fi component for the computer age, it’s the coolest thing since crushed ice.
I wasn’t chilling quite as blissfully during my first three weeks with it, however. With a small backlit display, a pair of concentric scroll wheels (or “jog shuttle controls,” as the manufacturer prefers), and soft-touch function-buttons arrayed beneath a trayless loading slot, the slim silver device looks deceivingly like a highquality disc player—which it is. This resemblance lured me into approaching it as such, rather than delving into it for what it is—an exceedingly clever blend of audio component and computer.
The fact that the MUSICA comes with a system-restore disc should have clued me in to its true nature. Ditto the size and density of the owner’s manual. A breezy three-page introduction deludes you into thinking that in 10 minutes you’ll have your new toy all figured out. Example: “Import from CD: Just insert an audio CD, wait until it is recognized, and press the ‘Import’ button.” Or: “Listen to Internet radio: In the main menu select ‘Internet Radio’ and choose from a wide variety of stations.”
Behind this friendly door lurks an impenetrable brick wall—the semicomprehensible owner’s manual, which I obstinately explored brick-by-brick. Here’s a random brick from page 14, verbatim: “Adding search criteria. Choose the main menu option ‘Searchlists,’ then your newly created list ‘The Best!’ and press the function key 2 ‘Change’ to define the first search criteria. Turning the inner wheel right, you are presented with the list of all meta data and all this fields are available for composing search criteria. To achieve a list of the best and only the best songs the field ‘Rating’ of the meta data has to be used. Only songs, albums, and artists with a five-star top ranking are allowed.…”
Trying simultaneously to understand text written by an engineer whose native tongue is other than English while attempting to get some grasp of the MUSICA’s front-panel controls was tedious. Sensitive scroll wheels, minute onscreen characters, reach-around-yourhead- to-scratch-your-nose operating logic, and opaque instructions made me feel like an errant schoolboy having been assigned extra homework.
The drudgery of this homework was exacerbated by the limited amount of information visible on the MUSICA’s small (1.5" x 4"), low-contrast display. As a computer user of long experience, I expect to see micro and macro file structures onscreen, to navigate effortlessly. Using the MUSICA’s display was like trying to see the contents of a large room through a keyhole, much like trying to operate a computer without a mouse, keyboard, or monitor.
For three weeks, I consciously avoided deep probing of the MUSICA’s real potential. I used it as an ordinary CD player—it sounds great, comparable to anything in its price range—and made straight copies of discs. That’s truly a one-button operation; just pop a CD in, press “Copy” and in a moment the MUSICA has read all the bits on the disc and asks you to insert a recordable blank. Soon your copy is ready, sir.
But I wasn’t making headway into what I feared was a technological jungle. As deadline loomed, I swallowed my pride and called Olive executive Robert Altmann, in the company’s San Francisco office. Patient and jovial, he listened to my complaints, and then explained that the real way to operate the MUSICA is via computer using any Web browser. All I had to do was enter MUSICA’s IP address in the address bar of my Web browser (Mozilla Firefox) and hit the “Enter” key. My monitor’s screen was filled by a lovely blue image of the MUSICA with boldface titles to all its functions. It was as if the door with the keyhole through which I had been peering so intently had just swung open. It was amazing to see all the features I had been studying and trying to manipulate via the MUSICA’s scrollwheels suddenly expand right in front of me—totally accessible via mouse and keyboard.