MP3: The End of the Beginning, or a New Dawn?

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I have always had a very close relationship with the MP3 audio format. In the mid-1990s, I was looking for a way to send stereo over a standard copper telephone line, and on discovering that MP3 would allow this, I rushed to the domain registrar—only to find it had been bought just a few weeks before. (I did, however, manage to grab—the streaming counterpart to the MP3 MIME Type, which took me on a great adventure… but that is another story!)

I could see the writing on the wall for the audio industry immediately. It took only a few years—and a lot of hate from the RIAA targeting then Scour and then Napster—to take MP3 from an obscure file type to being the vernacular for "online music."

The Diamond Rio MP3 player was sanctioned by the U.S. courts and broke open the world of portable digital music players. The iPod emerged a short while later, transforming the way consumers listened to music. And so, with only a short period where WMA (Windows Media Audio) and AAC (Advanced Audio Compression) took the world on a brief and unpopular voyage into DRM-protected music in the mid 2000s, MP3 emerged as the dominant way that audio was consumed.

In the raging days of P2P file sharing, which was an immediate outcome of the RIAA attempting to ban the technology to preserve its own recording-distribution monopoly (and in so doing globally raising the profile of the hitherto obscure P2P tools in the public eye, and further destroying any chance to put the file-sharing genie back in the bottle), P2P traffic rapidly overtook simple web browser and email traffic, which had until then been the dominant traffic on ISP networks. Now, of course, video has overtaken P2P by many orders of magnitude—itself a result of the roll-out of high-speed consumer broadband networks. But given that during the P2P emergence MP3 was the "standard" for people to rip and redistribute their music collections, it was clear that for some periods of time that MP3’s decoder ubiquity was a dominant driver for the uptake of internet services.

Of course there are purists out there who will always highlight that there are ostensibly "better" technologies. AAC undeniably produces a better compression ratio for a given quality. WMA has a number of features that give it wider functionality than MP3, and both are still used in professional applications. This is highlighted by the fact that in terms of uploads to YouTube in the past few years, WMA has exceeded MP3. (This is likely down to the integration of WMA with Windows Movie Maker, a dominant consumer video editing tool that is often used to make YouTube videos on Windows machines). Professional broadcast applications almost invariably use AAC, so most of the audio on large SVOD and even traditional digital TV broadcasting applications use AAC today.

But the humble MP3 is still, inarguably, one of the most widely supported, widely available audio compression tools. If you buy a car stereo today, it will invariably support MP3. The manufacturer would have to be crazy not to include support. To this day most music portals still offer MP3 downloads (perhaps alongside other formats). Icecast is still the dominant Internet radio streaming platform, and while it supports a number of other compression types, it is still MP3 that provides the widest device reach, and easiest format to find free tools to encode with.

It may be that MP3 is a VHS to other formats' better quality Betamax. But VHS won in its day, and MP3 is still absolutely one of the leaders of its genre.

So why is it in the news again now, some two decades after it crept out of Fraunhofer's  labs?

Well, this year the patents expired. This means a lot to technology companies. Those that want to upsell other technologies attempt to paint this as the "end of the MP3 era," and use the story to push their consumers to demand new technologies that attract a premium. The implication is "MP3 is dead so buy yourself something that is current." But that is almost naïvely far from the truth.

The fact is that MP3 is more than "good enough" for most consumers' audio perception. It is easy to use, easy to understand, and easy to convert files into. Not every player technology has paid a WMA royalty or an AAC royalty. And while many paid lip service to the MP3 royalty scheme anyway, the fact is the expiry of the patent now means that they can freely and widely deploy MP3-based services without any extraneous costs or royalties due.

And so radio stations are in no way thinking of dropping their Icecast streaming. The download stores are still offering MP3. iTunes still allows you to simply right-click and download files in MP3. Car stereos still sport badges touting support for MP3. Portable music players, and obviously their smartphone big brothers, all support MP3. To cut this support would be self-harming.

It may not be the "best" but it is good enough, and now it is royalty-free. And that, contrary to some of the recent media declaring that the MP3 era is over, marks a new dawn.

My very first audio compression system (a 1999 Audioactive Telos Encoder) was a 1RU rack mount system that cost several thousand dollars. I have just developed a live MP3 Icecast streaming device using a $7 system on chip for a partner audio streaming company. We were joking that we could fit several hundred of the SOCs into a device the same size as the original Telos unit. One of the things that attracts us to using MP3 as the core compression technology is the very fact that it is now royalty-free and requires no transcoding in the CDN to reach the largest possible potential audience.

So anyone who thinks that the expiry of a patent means the expiry of the technology must think again. Not only does MP3 have a long history of surviving in the face of fierce legislative attacks, but even its creators have not been able to hold onto its tail.

MP3 has a long life ahead of it. I personally still always maintain my entire music library in MP3 format. Yes I use Spotify, iTunes Match, etc, and it is only when I DJ or want a local copy of the music that I need to think about adding to my library of commercial music with an MP3 version of the file. However all my (private) desk recordings from working with the likes of Fatboy Slim, Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and many others are stored in MP3, and as long they are I am confident that I will be able to play them to my kids and grandkids. And that legacy is extremely important.

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