It seems that the MP3 world has meant nothing but trouble as of late. Napster's been hauled off to court, MP3.com is wrapping up their multiple settlements over their "MyMP3.com" service (what were they thinking when they launched that, anyhow?), and several other file-sharing programs (Gnutella, Scour, FreeNet) have been gaining more and more users to replace Napster if and when it finally gets shut down.
Another wrench is being thrown into the MP3 mix. Much of the technology underlying the MP3 music format is patented by the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. They've smartened up and will start charging royalty fees for decoders, encoders, hardware products, and the distribution of any MP3 file at the end of this year. The fees are not cheap either: up to $5 per unit for an encoder; $.50 per hardware sale; digital download sites will pay 1 percent of the price charged to the listener; and there is a $15,000 minimum licensing fee for every company. By the end of 2001, webcasters will also have to pay a royalty for streaming MP3s.
While the MP3 revolution was occurring, another format was laying low on the radar screen, and has set itself up to possibly take over where MP3 may be halted. Its name is Ogg Vorbis, and its 1.0 beta launched at the MP3 summit on June 20, 2000. Vorbis is an open source (read as royalty free) compressed audio format for high-quality (44.1 to 48.0 kHz, 16 bit and higher, polyphonic) audio and music at fixed and variable bit rates from 16 to 128 kbps per channel. The iCast-sponsored Ogg Vorbis home site claims that this format is comparable in sound quality to MP3, while providing the ability to encode in surround sound. They also claim that the file size is considerably smaller when compared to an MP3 using the same settings. While Vorbis is still in beta, there are also plans for incorporating streaming and video with this format in the near future. Now that I've piqued your interest, you might want to go to the Vorbis web site for binary downloads of encoders and plug-ins for Linux and Windows.
Here is the real question. Even though there is a war going on over it, we're already happy with MP3, and there are dozens of audio and video formats already out there. Do we really want to deal with one more? That depends on who you talk to. You can bet companies such as MusicMatch (which gives away their audio encoder for free) think Vorbis is just what audio on the Internet should be, nonproprietary and royalty free (and MusicMatch could stay in business instead of forking over $5 for every unit). Where Vorbis may really take off is with Internet radio, where cutting costs will become a top priority. Webcasters won't want to pay a licensing fee to stream MP3s when they can stream the Vorbis format for no cost (other than the yet-to-be-determined royalty payments to the RIAA).
It may be difficult for Vorbis to break into a market that already has dominant players, and people may not want to give a different format a chance, even if it is free. The streaming market is controlled by Real Networks, those looking for downloads use MP3, and Windows Media is winning favor with those who have interests with more secure formats, like SDMI. If Vorbis is to succeed, it will need to find its own niche within the audio community.
Does being open source help or hinder Vorbis's push into the market? While being nonproprietary may be well and good, open source technologies are sometimes hard to break out of the underground and into the mainstream without the support and promotion one gets from a major distribution company. One must look at the growing success of Gnutella to see how an open source project can become mainstream. Gnutella came to light because of Napster's popularity, and it served as an alternative way to get MP3s without worrying about the wrath of the RIAA. Word of mouth over the Internet and extensive press coverage gave Gnutella some notoriety, and it looked to be the successor of Napster. While problems with Gnutella have recently come to light, it's hard to ignore the number of Gnutella users. Vorbis could also ride the MP3 train to success, just as Gnutella did. Will the "next big thing" be sites with Vorbis files available for download? Because iCast is heavily involved with the growth and sponsorship of Vorbis, the company is in the perfect position to become the next MP3.com, if they play their cards right and Vorbis is discovered and embraced by the Internet community.
Both online music companies and consumers (who may already have a large collection of MP3s) will need to be won over by the Vorbis project if it is to make its mark in the marketplace. They've already won over a few major digital audio players. WinAmp, Sonique, and FreeAmp have all created plug-ins that support playback of Vorbis files. Because there is no licensing fee with the Vorbis format, you can expect to see other players supporting the format in the near future.
What Ogg Vorbis has going for it is an infinite number of developers who can only make the format better. MP3 fans may be won over by the smaller file sizes (which translates to more songs available on your hard drive or burned onto an audio CD), audio software companies may be won over by the fact that there are no licensing fees, and because web developers and computer programmers are usually behind anything open source, there is already a grassroots backing for the format.
What remains to be seen is if the MP3 format will continue to be the download format of choice, and there is no sign of this trend ending anytime soon. The record companies are hoping that they can push out their own secure digital download format, but it will need to win over an audience that has been abused by the industry for decades. As I mentioned in a previous article, it may be too late for SDMI. I suggest we keep an eye on our radar screens, because Ogg Vorbis may come out of nowhere to take its share of the market.
Steve McCannell is a writer/producer for the O'Reilly Network and the founder of Lost Dog Found Music.
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