The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 1: Music

We’re all familiar with the MP3 file format. As far as most people are concerned, the format implies free music. The software required to play MP3 files is usually free as well. That said, neither of these things necessarily follow from use of the MP3 format.

What most people don’t realize is that the MP3 format itself is not free. If you want to create a device or a piece of software that plays back or creates MP3 files, you have to pay Thomson Consumer Electronics for a license to do so.

Companies that sell products that support MP3 are paying Thomson for each sale. That means Microsoft Windows, Apple’s Mac OS X and iPod. This even applies to software that is free for the end-user to download, such as Apple’s iTunes or Winamp. That’s right – Winamp had to pay for a license for every copy of the player that all of us got to download for free.

What the heck is Ogg Vorbis?

There is an alternative format that is a technical match to MP3 that is not encumbered with patent or licensing issues. The Ogg Vorbis format is as good or better than MP3 and is completely free (both in terms of price and licensing).

Why, then, hasn’t Ogg Vorbis taken off? I see a few reasons for this. The first is that the term “MP3” became a brand name associated with free music. Companies involved in music-related products and services wanted to be able to say “MP3”.

Apple had the opportunity to make the move when they introduced iTunes and the iPod. Both are compatible with MP3, but the default format is AAC, something Apple presumably used for the ability to control playback (“digital rights management”).

So What?

The most significant reason that Ogg Vorbis didn’t overtake MP3 is that MP3 did what people wanted. End users weren’t paying the license fee. Winamp was free, iTunes was free. Why change?

We see the real problem with a non-free file format when free/open-source software starts to become more prevalent on the rest of the desktop. Completely free/open-source desktop Linux distributions cannot include support for MP3 playback, because they would have to track (and pay for) each download. As a result, Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, and other popular Linux distributions can’t play a simple MP3 file out of the box. This is because the file is simple, but the lisencing is not.

Why Not Just Use Ogg Vorbis, Then?

What then, is a music publisher who cares about free and open software to do? I produce an amateur radio show made available for download in MP3 format. I would like to publish in Ogg Vorbis format, but a lot of my potential listeners would have to jump through hoops to be able to play the show.

Consider John Q. Listener. He’d like to listen to my radio show on his new iBook. However, iTunes doesn’t support Ogg Vorbis playback by default. A plug-in is available, but is he really going to go install it just to listen to my dorky little show? Even if John does find a way to play the Ogg Vorbis files on his laptop, he won’t be able to play them on his iPod. The same goes for overwhelming majority of computer users who are running Windows.

I want to support the open file format, but I also want people to listen to my show. I want people walking around with my favourite songs on their iPod. What am I to do? I have three options:

  1. Publish only in MP3 – This works for everyone but a small number of Linux users (most of whom know how to get MP3 playback for their Linux computers anyhow). Free file format be damned, John Q. Listener is walking around with my show on his iPod.
  2. Publish only in Ogg Vorbis – People learn about the format. Some may even find the software required to play it on the Mac or Windows PC. However, many (most?) people won’t bother listening since they don’t have support for the file format already installed. No one with an iPod can listen to it (unless they convert it to MP3, and it’s not that good of a show to be worth that kind of time and effort). The world is a better place, but I’ll never get famous this way…
  3. Publish two versions, one in MP3 and one in Ogg Vorbis – many online media outlets go this route with streaming formats (publishing simultaneously in Real, Windows Media, Quicktime formats) to ensure the widest possible reach. However, this adds a new layer of complexity for my John Q. Listener. Now, instead of just downloading and listening, he has to choose between two formats. He doesn’t care, he just wants to rawk. Also, much of the benefit of publishing in Ogg Vorbis is now lost, since only those who are already familiar with it and using it will bother choosing it as a format.

I went with option #1. I’m still not entirely comfortable with this, but I want as many people as possible to hear by show. Obviously, I’m not writing here with a clear recommendation. Rather, I hope to highlight the benefits and issues surrounding the move to free/open formats.

I’ll be writing more about the catch-22 of open formats, and with a bit more optimism, in the coming days.

The Catch-22 of Open Formats mini-series
  1. The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 1: Music (you are here)
  2. The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 2: Instant Messaging
  3. Part 3: Coming soon

31 thoughts on “The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 1: Music

  1. Well, I don’t know if you plan to mention this in the next part but already this shift is changing because of PC gaming.

    I’d guess the majority of games (apart from those developed/published by Microsoft themsleves) are using .ogg files now. This also means the vast majority of these games install a DirectShow filter on the system to play back these files via the standard DirectX DirectSound method. This means probably millions have ogg-compatible players installed and they don’t know about it. The reason for these installations is simple – computer games use a lot of sound and music and .ogg is free, .mp3 isn’t – as you rightly say. Not only that, .ogg can sound as good as mp3 in smaller files, which means shorter demo downloads or more content on the CD/DVD.

    One thing you failed to mention is that most of the device manufacturers pay absolutely no royalties, because they are based in mainland China and they simply can get away with not paying it. It’s a similar story with the cheap DVD players you see on the market now – none of them pay any royalties to the DVD consortium. The Chinese government doesn’t care.

    I just wish Apple would include ogg support on the next range of iPods, since the chipset is more than capable to play it back (something that the first through third generations couldn’t do). This would mean a huge shift in the balance of power for ogg and allow people like you to publish .ogg and not have to worry about it not playing on the most likely used device, the iPod. This is especially important with podcasting now where there could be huge bandwidth savings if ogg (or heck, even speex) was used instead of mp3.

    I wonder if we could get Adam Curry onto Jobs about this?

  2. So the solution is actually simple — Apple just needs to go back and patch all the iPods out there, and Sony needs to offer firmware upgrades (free-of-charge) for download to update their in-dash mp3-playable CD car stereos to support Ogg Vorbis.

    I’m on board — let’s go for it!!

  3. I think writing like this is exactly what we need to popularize open formats — instead of just offering up mp3 without saying why, you’ve got this, and maybe people will go out and download an ogg plugin and learn more about it.

    I personally prefer Option 3 with emphasis on Option 2 — so, the default is Ogg Vorbis, but in small print below the main link, I’ll put “Can’t play this file? Here’s how. Here’s why. Here’s an mp3 if you’re feeling lazy right now.”

    So really push it into the market, but offer backward-compatible options. I personally have an iRiver, which plays Ogg and mp3, so I’m not in with the iPod crowd with hatin on the Ogg. I prefer it for quality and openness, so serve it up!

  4. What I’ve heard from some corporate folks, they say that Ogg Vorbis is a bit risky. If there isn’t anyone to sell you a license or even anyone who could claim the format for his own big corporates don’t bother. You never know when someone claims having patented this or that free format or even parts of it. At least corporates want to be absolutely sure that this will never happen. That means hiring lots of lawyers to do reserch and such. That means losing money. Therefore it is easier to pay for a non-free format right away.

    Catch-22 of software patents of the lack of them. 😉

  5. Okay, I’ve got another idea. Firefox took off even though IE “did what people needed”, and the reason is simple: it’s a superior product, and people knew it, and people spread it with a viral marketing campaign. You helped, and it worked magically.

    Why not have a viral marketing campaign for Ogg Vorbis? Or for all open formats?

  6. Today’s announcement from the iPod Linux project is actually quite encouraging – Ogg Vorbis playback is now possible. A proper release is probably a few months away though and in any case I doubt people would want to install some potentially risky unofficial firmware just to play the file. Obviously if Apple adopted Ogg Vorbis in the iPod and in iTunes officially then things might move forward.

    Alternatively, Apple could license the AAC format so that it can be used free of charge by open source projects.

    Or we could all wait until 2012 when the MP3 patent expires 🙂

  7. Another reason Ogg Vorbis can’t take off: it’s pretty resource intensive to process and reproduce in digital audio players.

    Remember, we had to get to the current generation of iPods for the PortalPlayer chipset to have the horsepower to reproduce .ogg files (Though I have the suspicion that 3G iPods may have been able to do this too — but I’m too busy now to look for that bookmark).

    And then, we have the other DAP manufacturers: I remember reading a post in the Riovolution forums by a Rio Networks engineer mentioning this very thing: that Ogg Vorbis reproduction just creates a quite big ‘load’ in the player’s processor. (To their credit, Rio Networks’ Karma reproduces Ogg Vorbis files, but not their whole line, due to the aforementioned reason.)

    Also, I’m not 100% sure when I say this, but at least a few months ago when I did a quick check, progress in the Ogg Vorbis development field had ceased/was inexistant.

  8. Being able to mount a mature Windows installation from Linux helps an awful lot in getting a full range of multimedia running: just copy-over all the codecs, even if you’re not sure what they’re for.

    But that still leaves out MP3, for which you need LAME. There are good instructions available for configuring this stuff on Ubuntu, but you *do* have to look for them.

    For an article I’m writing, I had to encode a 40MB .wav file (1.5 hrs running time) of a conference call as MP3, and decided I’ll provide Ogg as well — with MP3 listed first. At 32kbps, the MP3 (encoded using LAME) came in at 20.2MB; the Ogg (at 28kbps) is 17.5MB.

    Costs me nothing to provide both, and somebody might discover Ogg as a result. Doubt anybody will be confused.


  9. There is nothing inherently “cool” about MP3 or AAC; their advantage is that they “just work,” without installation of any new codecs or plugins. Many non-technical users choose default settings; on Windows, that means their music is encoded as MP3, WMA, or AAC – not OGG. Many iTunes users I have talked to did not know the difference between AAC and MP3, simply because they never had to think about it.

  10. Well, since CVS versions of iPod Linux can play back Ogg files at 110% realtime, I guess that’s false. Admittedly that’s only on the 4G, iPod Mini and Photo but I’m sure other models will come soon.

  11. Well, I’m not sure that the story is that true about the first iPods and ogg. For example, it doesn’t take into consideration that you need to run the iPod with all the various features running – would it, for example, work with the graphic equaliser on?

    Not to mention that Apple gets to sell more iPods if they only release it in the newest version.

  12. Dude, Ogg Vorbis isn’t just as good as MP3 – it’s much better. Built-in Variable BitRate (VBR), baby!

  13. I would like to publish in Ogg Vorbis format, but a lot of my potential listeners would have to jump through hoops to be able to play the show.

    Well, you mentioned Winamp earlier, it comes with the vorbis decoder, and you could probably put the iTunes plugin near the files/stream link, I doubt it takes much size (I don’t use iTunes so I don’t actually know)…

    Another reason Ogg Vorbis can’t take off: it’s pretty resource intensive to process and reproduce in digital audio players.

    Right, this is probably why iRiver has released OGG-capable players out of the box for a while now, and has even released firmware updates to allow older players to process OGG files… up to 500kbps (that would be max quality)…

    All in all, OGG is probably not the absolute best lossy format, but it’s for sure much better than MP3 or WMA. Check out Hydrogenaudio for comparisons, the guys there have many thorough tests.

  14. Right, this is probably why iRiver has released OGG-capable players out of the box for a while now, and has even released firmware updates to allow older players to process OGG files… up to 500kbps (that would be max quality)…

    If you’re going to be sarcastic, at least cover all the facts.

    Have you tried reproducing .ogg files with an iRiver to see how fast the battery drains? (A: Much faster than when reproducing only .mp3 files.)

    Guess why that is?

  15. Now, instead of just downloading and listening, he has to choose between two formats. He doesn’t care, he just wants to rawk. Also, much of the benefit of publishing in Ogg Vorbis is now lost, since only those who are already familiar with it and using it will bother choosing it as a format.

    You could design the AOVR area in such a way that the OGG file receives most attention, making Johnny Q’s choice easier, while the mp3 link looks more like a ‘backup’ link, and you could include a link to a player/codec that can digest OGG.

    I know that it sounds as though with that, the AOVR design becomes terribly complex, but proper layout can provide a decent compromise between offering only MP3, and offering both formats. I’m sure Steve’s capable of cleanly designing a rectangle with a couple links. 🙂

  16. May be I’m wrong, but Virgin Radio starts streaming ogg since 2003/04. You must think that ogg is more reliable on low bitrates. The sound you get on small ogg’s is much better!

    With ogg you can encode 5.1, for mp3 is a very bleeding edge feature. Bass sounds better… I prefer much more ogg than mp3, but specially for streaming.

    I hate to encode my music to mp3 because of the compatibility, but I must do it because of friends…

  17. I don’t understand how Bucci can say it doesn’t sound good! OGG is the best ever! I just don’t rip my cds as OGG cus my Ipod doesn’t support it.

  18. gaston, I think what Bucci meant is that the actual phrase itself, “Ogg Vorbis,” doesn’t sound as cool as “MP3.”

    I encode all my music in Ogg Vorbis, and use Rhythmbox to play it back on Fedora Core.

  19. Ogg Vorbis would be fine if quality was the main concern. But it fails in speed and compatibility. With LAME presets you get above-average quality, speed, and universal playback. Ogg Vorbis’ supposed superiority doesn’t trump the all-rounder mp3.

    The only open format for music that interests me is flac. I am surprised you didn’t mention it.

  20. You missed the real catch-22: any desktop linux system that cares about home user usability will pay for mp3 licencing even though they are trying to support open source software and effectively cutting their own throat.

    (business idea: an online service that allows any Linux user to download a licenced copy of the mp3 codec for ‘free’ just by sitting through some music focused advertising. Anyone got the numbers on how feasible that would be? Might make some money and slightly increase Linux usability but won’t help vorbis in the long term)

    The other point that is worth mentioning is that AAC and WMP (never mind ATRAC and other proprietary codecs) are struggling with the massive install base of mp3 and the lack of a compelling end-user USP (allowing multinationals to lock you out of your own content doesn’t count). If the massive success of the iPod hasn’t allowed Apple to displace mp3, and MSFT’s usual bully-boy monopoly tactics haven’t stolen the market for WMA then what makes you think that Ogg Vorbis is failing because it is open? It seems to be doing surprisingly well to me, all things considered.

    Why doesn’t someone come up with a killer feature for Firefox that needs vorbis? If people are prepared to fight through the Real Player download screen to get content from the likes of the BBC then an open source install *should* be (though sadly probably isn’t) a piece of cake.

  21. I’d go with 2. Stand up for what you believe in. Your radio show doesn’t seem to be a big revenue stream, it’s not a business decision for someone else. So go for it, put a disclaimer and politely and patiently try to explain what you just explained whenever you get the chance.

    Hey zealots can be annoying, it’s other people’s choice which they use, and that I have always respected. But needless to say, most of my friends – who are not technical – encode to Ogg, and write valid HTML. These are tweo successes I’ve had (along with a few Linux converts) by stciking to the above. I find the ranting of RMS and ESR to be quite offensive and off-putting most of the time, but there are other ways of talking.

    I’ve generally encorouaged all the companies I’ve work for to be more suspicious of the interchange formats that companies push on them. This is not by talking about some abstract sense of liberty, but merely educating about vendor lock-in, something they’ve often felt elsewhere, and how this can effect their business.

    I dunno, it’s a slow battle, maybe lost, but you’ve got to do what you can.

  22. I hate to be the pessimist, but Ogg Vorbis (I hope I spelt that right) will never take off due to the same faults that most open source projects have (as does Linux on a HUGE scale), which is that they never use naming schemes that make any sense to the general public.

    mp3 became a household term because it was really the very first easily distributable music format, and that’s what people held on to. Maybe they should have called it mpx (the x is for eXtreme!) and it would have caught some peoples attention.

    But unfortunately as it stands now, a lot of people know firefox is a browser, some people know they can use Linux instead of windows (and give up after they find out that there are many different types of “linux”) and barely anyone but developers know that ogg vorbis is synonomous with compressed audio. I even doubt a viral ad campaign like firefox had could convert anyone in this case, unless the users are told that ogg’s can’t be renamed viruses like mp3 files can be…

  23. Stop! I think I’ve heard the one before.

    Anyway, Ogg was a great idea/alternative when compressed audio formats were necessary (and it was written about ad nauseam 3-4 years ago). However, it will become come nothing more that a footnote in the history of digital audio formats now that bandwidth, storage, and computer power are all so incredibly fast, cheap, and powerful. A true lossless format will rise up soon and become the standard, dethroning the MP3 and disappearing OGG, WMA, and Real into the night. What will it be? … AAC, FLAC, something completely different? Who knows, but now would be the time for the open source community to look down the road a bit, take the initiative and establish that new lossless audio standard and sell it to the world. Instead of writing about the past and what could have been.

    P.S. Steven you are so unoriginal it makes me sleepy.

  24. I think I’m with RTG on this one. For a very long time I encoded my MP3’s at 320kbps as the artifacting at any slower rate makes listening a non-pleasure (even then it is still hardly transparent). Recently I noticed that the lossless encoders like Monkey’s Audio ( were doing pretty much a 50% compression. Any half-way modern machine can handle the decompression on the fly, Winamp is using about 10% of my ancient Duron 800 for APE playback.

    The bonus is crystal clear audio using about the same disk space as maximum compression with MP3 encoding and if some new super fractal null point over the horizon compression scheme comes along one day, I can recompress without any generational loss.

  25. PS. Yes I am a dickhead; I, of course, meant minimum compression in that last paragraph, above.

  26. My Samsung Yepp, Model YP-MT6, plays ogg vorbis. It was a simple firmware upgrade!!! It runs 40 Hours on a single AA battery (I use the 15 minute rechargeables). It records sound, receives FM radio (from which it can record), and can digitize any audio source via a little line-in socket. It can repeatedly play a section of a sound file for those who want to memorize something. It is just the right size to fit in the change pocket of my jeans. This is the VW Beetle of sound devices. I expect to be using it long after everyone’s IPods batteries and/or hard drives have died an expensive death. No, I can’t store gigabytes of stuff…that’s why I have a computer.

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