Last week, news circulated that the beloved MP3 audio format was “officially dead,” based on a press release from the Fraunhofer Institute of Integrated Circuits, the organization that has been stewarding the technology since the early 90’s.
MP3: A History Lesson in Internet Audio
The Fraunhofer Institute released its first MP3 audio encoder and player in July 1994, which allowed average users to take raw audio files and aggressively compress them by a ratio of up to 11:1.
The resulting file size savings allowed audio to be shared rapidly on the fledgling Internet, during a time in which the average modem speed was less that 56kbps. (The average 3MB song file would take 10 minutes to download.)
Audio piracy quickly became a popular Internet pastime. Chat rooms on mIRC, dedicated file-sharing websites like the Internet Underground Music Archive, and apps like Napster were hubs for peer-to-peer audio file-sharing.
Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Fraunhofer’s official MP3 software was itself pirated shortly after its release. Reverse-engineered by an Australian hacker, it was redistributed for free to the public, under the cheeky moniker “thank you Fraunhofer.”
By the late 90’s, the MP3 format was the de facto compression technology for audio files. Within two years of its release, Nullsoft’s Winamp audio player, the most popular MP3 app, reported having 25 million registered users, during a time when there were fewer than 500 million users on the Internet.
The Patent is Dead, But the Technology Lives On
In their statement, the Fraunhofer Institute noted that its “licensing program for certain MP3 related patents and software […] has been terminated,” and further heralded AAC, a newer format also patented by the Institute, as the new “de facto standard for music download and videos on mobile phones.”
It’s worth highlighting that only the licensing program for MP3 technology has been terminated, meaning that it is no longer a revenue stream for its originators. In contrast, licensing and patent protection for AAC is alive and well.
Technology entrepreneur Marco Arment notes that over 92 percent of all podcasts are released in MP3 format to this day. Additionally, he explains, “AAC and other newer audio codecs can produce better quality than MP3, but the difference is only significant at low bitrates.” As Internet bandwidth continues to increase, aggressive file compression has become less and less valuable.
Now that MP3 is unencumbered by patents, innovation may continue beyond the auspices of its original creators. Arment writes, “MP3 is supported by everything, everywhere […] Over twenty years since it took the world by storm, it’s finally free.”
The impact of the change is already being felt. Last week, Red Hat announced that it would finally be able to include MP3 encoding and decoding directly into its official Linux distribution.
Do you think this beloved audio file format is really dead? Share your thoughts down below.
Images via Pixabay, AngelList