Before the iPod, there was the Diamond Rio PMP300.

Not that you'd remember.

Launched in 1998, the PMP300 became an instant hit, but then the hype faded faster than Milli Vanilli. One thing, though, was notable about the player. It carried the MAS3507 MP3 decoder chip—a RISC-based digital signal processor with an instruction set optimized for audio compression and decompression.

MAS3507 MP3 Decoder

Manufacturer: Micronas Semiconductor

Category: Amplifiers and Audio

Year: 1997

The chip, developed by Micronas (now TDK-Micronas), let the Rio squeeze about a dozen songs into its flash memory. This is laughable by today's standards, but at the time it was just enough to compete with portable CD players, which suffered from a tendency to skip if jostled. The Rio and its successors paved the way for the iPod, and now you can carry thousands of songs—and all of Milli Vanilli's albums and music videos—in your pocket.

diagramAs this Micronas design document shows, the MAS3507 was built around doing only one thing well—decoding MPEG Audio Layer III data, a.k.a. MP3 files. Originally developed simply as the storage subsystem for holding the soundtrack of MPEG videos, the MP3 format took on a life of its own.Image: Micronas

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The Godfather of South Korea’s Chip Industry

How Kim Choong-Ki helped the nation become a semiconductor superpower

15 min read
A man in a dark suit, bald with some grey hair, leans against a shiny blue wall, in which he is reflected.

Kim Choong-Ki, now an emeritus professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, was the first professor in South Korea to systematically teach semiconductor engineering.

Korea Academy of Science and Technology

They were called “Kim’s Mafia.” Kim Choong-Ki himself wouldn’t have put it that way. But it was true what semiconductor engineers in South Korea whispered about his former students: They were everywhere.

Starting in the mid-1980s, as chip manufacturing in the country accelerated, engineers who had studied under Kim at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) assumed top posts in the industry as well as coveted positions teaching or researching semiconductors at universities and government institutes. By the beginning of the 21st century, South Korea had become a dominant power in the global semiconductor market, meeting more than 60 percent of international demand for memory chips alone. Around the world, many of Kim’s protégés were lauded for their brilliant success in transforming the economy of a nation that had just started assembling radio sets in 1959 and was fabricating outdated memory chips in the early ’80s.

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