Sunday 21 October 2012

Is There a Future for MP3? - A Personal Conclusion.

If you look at the battle for prominence in the portable music format arena then there are currently two main contenders for the format leader. One would be the middle aged but well established MP3 format. The other format AAC is now in its prime, still not well recognised but gaining in popularity. So why has the superior format not overtaken the older MP3 standard in popularity and recognition?  Well possibly the main reason that MP3 has continued to hold its ground is that the main purpose for having a compressed format, i.e. overcoming memory limitations, has become less of a problem as memory costs have reduced and memory sizes for devices and memory cards has increased. The roll on effect is that even though AAC is more efficient in its space usage, this advantage is less important when a moderate increase in bitrate (the amount of memory used to compress audio) is used for creating MP3 files. The competitive advantage of using the AAC format is then much less than one might first think. So the dramatic and on-going reductions in memory prices can effectively reduce the technical benefits of one format over another, leaving users to decide on their preferred audio format based on other factors.

Possibly the single most important factor in a user’s decision on what format to use for a music collection is the default setting of the computer that is used to download or rip music. On Apple computers, the popular iTunes media player will by default use AAC to rip or convert audio CDs to a compressed portable music player format but it can also use MP3 or other formats. Windows users will by default be offered WMA but can also select MP3. So if the default computer software settings have not already decided for them, most uses will probably not be aware of the technical advantages of using AAC or other formats such as WMA even Ogg Vorbis and may well opt for the more familiar MP3 format. And if they choose a bitrate that matches their listening requirements then personally I don't think that would be too bad a decision given that it would maximise the potential number of devices that it could be played on. However, if they are a keen Apple hardware fan then the default AAC format offered to them would also be a good choice. So does it make a real difference if one uses MP3 or AAC?

If music streaming sites such as Spotify or Pandora or even new Apple or Microsoft offerings become more popular, then having access to the music or audio they love may well become more important in people's eyes than actually owning it on CD/MP3 or any physical media. If this eventually becomes the case then the protected audio format as mandated by a streaming music company would remove any complex encoder decisions from end users. So in the long term with 4G or even future 5G connectivity and ever cheaper and more powerful devices becoming available, people may consider that having access to their favourite tunes on their phone or connected device is all that they want or need.  That may seem strange to people who love to own a physical copy of their music on uncompressed CDs but if streaming services become more popular and with that cheaper, then this may well become the accepted norm.

However, within the next five years there is also another factor that could add to the longevity of the MP3 format. It looks like in April 2017 the MP3 format technology will eventually become patent free. Combining this with a projection for the power, miniaturisation and reduced cost of hardware devices for the same date, it looks like there could be a new explosion of audio recording devices that are almost throw-away. One could envision a small decorative tie clip or broach that is also a fully functioning MP3 recorder. Cheap watches or ball point pens could also double as MP3 recorders. Even clothes buttons could perform this double act leaving one to think who could be recording what. However, the possibilities for improved notes and minutes in business, or recording every creative idea and thought or even shopping and to-do lists are immense.

So to conclude, I think there is still a long future for MP3 and this is not just for playing back existing recordings. The possibility of future novel and inexpensive MP3 recording devices is exciting and would also extend the life of the format. However, I also think that AAC will continue to grow in popularity and recognition, even outside the Apple world, eventually making it the format of choice for informed users.

So until next time, happy listening and remember in the end it is all about the music and not the technology behind it.

Peter Cheeseman
Author of of mp3TrueEdit™
(The fast and easy way to edit MP3 Files)

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Is There a Future for MP3?

The MP3 file format is not the first compression technology used to store audio or music but it is certainly the definitive standard used to describe if not necessarily to implement how modern users obtain their favourite collections of music and listen to them whenever they feel the need.  Its significant improvement over previous audio encoding standards and the advent of Internet access for the masses from 1994 onward rapidly lead to MP3 files becoming the format of choice for listening to music on your computer and in later years even on the go.
By providing a convenient way for computer uses to store and listen to their music by ‘ripping’ or compressing Audio CD tracks to MP3 files and playing them back through their computer’s speakers MP3 found its way into the hearts of music lovers who only needed to be a bit tech savvy.  As well as saving on the space that your music collection occupied on those puny hard drives of the day, MP3 also provided a way to share MP3 based music over the slow modem Internet connections available at the time.  The reduced file size lead to faster download times of music files which could be obtained more and more easily either legitimately or illegally over the Internet.

With the advent of portable music players MP3 files also became the new way to listen to your music any time anywhere.  However, when Apple came on the scene with their iconic iPod player they also introduced a can of worms.  As well as being able to play the now popular MP3 file format, Apple iPod devices could play a ‘protected’ version of a newer AAC file format.  This was the format that users were often forced to use when purchasing music from the iTunes Store with its files apparently protected from indiscriminate copying or sharing with a digital rights management (DRM) coating around the compressed AAC audio information.  This then restricted which devices and computers could be used to playback the music.  So at one stage the superior AAC encoding quality and the perceived ability to protect copyright holders from the associated loss in revenue through pirating together with the iPod and iTunes Store adoption looked like the writing was on the wall for the MP3 file format.

Eventually Apple and the record labels realised that DRM was more of a nuisance to legitimate customers than to illegal file sharers who always seemed to find ways to circumvent the restrictions applied and from 2007 to 2009 Steve Jobs managed to persuade all four major record companies to abandon DRM in favour of unprotected AAC downloads.  During this period there was somewhat a shift from protected DRM purchases back to the MP3 file format which has no ability to protect its content.  By then MP3 also established another ally, the LAME encoder.  By making a free MP3 encoder available to all, based on years of user trials and enthusiastic development efforts, the LAME encoder managed to make impressive improvements in the potential quality of MP3 recordings.

So will the current popularity of the MP3 file format with the help of the free LAME encoder be enough to hold back the competition from AAC or other more modern formats such as Ogg Vorbis?  Does the MP3 format even deserve to keep its place as the de facto standard for portable music and audio?

Stay tuned to this blog for my personal conclusion on whether MP3 has any future in the ever changing horizon of this technological world.

Peter Cheeseman
Author of of mp3TrueEdit™
(The fast and easy way to edit MP3 Files)