Is the MP3 really dead? (The answer’s “no.”)

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Recently, the popular MP3 audio format was declared “dead.” Or so claims the Fraunhofer Institute, the researchers who helped spearhead the development of the format, and held licensing rights. The announcement came as the institute announced it’s ending their MP3 licensing program. They did tell the tech world that there’s newer, better audio formats, such as AAC (used most prominently in Apple devices).

Why the MP3 isn’t dead (and its future)

Contrary to the headlines, the MP3 format isn’t dead. All that’s happened is the licensing fees aren’t profitable anymore. The MP3 format was invented in the early 1990s, and was first patented in 1997. All of its patents have largely and finally expired, and thus, it’s freely available for anyone to use.

Others, such as Mac Observer, have noted that like the GIF format (once patented but now free to use), a patent-free MP3 will likely increase in usage in the future. For years, open source software such as Audacity (an audio editor) and various Linux distributions have made installing MP3 support an extra step, instead of including support by default. Now, such software is free to include MP3 support out of the box.

MP3s have also been around for quite awhile; the format’s still heavily used by services like Google Play Music. While there are newer and improved audio formats, MP3’s ubiquitous nature, widespread compatibility, and adequate quality means it’ll likely be around for some time to come.

Other audio formats

iPhone and headphones
Pixabay photo by Firmbee (CC0)

There’s other audio formats besides MP3 available. Below are the most popular alternatives.

AAC

AAC is still under patents. However, it’s been the most popular lossy alternative to MP3. AAC offers technical improvements over MP3, and (generally) supports similar sound quality in a smaller file size. Part of AAC’s popularity stems from Apple making it the default lossy audio format for its devices.

Ogg Vorbis/Opus

Ogg Vorbis (“Ogg” for short) has been the dominant open source lossy audio format for years. Ogg’s supported by pretty much all Linux devices, as well as all major web browsers, VLC, and other audio software. Spotify uses Ogg for its service.

Recently, a newer, improved audio format called “Opus” has been developed. It’s slowly gaining in popularity, replacing the Vorbis part of Ogg Vorbis (Ogg is a “container” format, Vorbis the actual audio format).

FLAC

FLAC is a lossless open source audio format. It has the advantages of Ogg (free to use) and MP3 (can contain metadata); however, like WAV, it’s lossless. As such, FLAC has become popular among audiophiles; a few music services also offer FLAC files. Unfortunately, FLAC’s large file sizes makes it less desirable for using on most mobile devices. Apple also never included support for FLAC in iTunes, instead favoring its own nearly identical format, Apple Lossless (ALAC).

Of course, there’s also just streaming music, which recently overtook stand-alone audio files in US sales.

Conclusion

Ultimately, MP3 isn’t dead. Things are merely working as they should when patents expire, with MP3 entering the technological equivalent of the public domain. (A concept that’s becoming increasingly in danger of late.) If anything, expect even more widespread use of MP3 in the future, alongside other audio formats like AAC, Ogg, and FLAC.

What audio formats do you use?


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