Digital file formats don’t usually get the rock star treatment when it comes to entering the public’s consciousness, but if one ever did, the MP3 format is it.
But that’s all coming to an end — or at least that’s what recent events point to.
Just last month, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the Germany-based organization that began developing the audio data compression algorithm in the ’80s, ended its licensing program for the MP3 digital file format. The move may serve to push the format further into the shadows of internet history as more efficient and better sounding digital file formats, such as Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), continue to rise in popularity.
“We thank all of our licensees for their great support in making mp3 the defacto audio codec in the world, during the past two decades,” a message on the Fraunhofer IIS website reads.
Although the MP3 format is still in relatively wide use for various types of internet-based content, the end of its licensing program represents a major turn in the history of digital media. Back in 1998, the format had become so popular as a tool for internet users looking to transform compact discs (CDs) into easily tradable digital files, that the music industry panicked and launched the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). The group, composed of major music publishers, record labels, and electronics companies, came together with the goal of fighting the MP3 format and instituting a digital rights management (DRM) standard to protect the work (and the profits) of the artists and the music companies around the world.
Napster shook the music business to its foundations by introducing a peer-to-peer file sharing app that sent illegal MP3 music file sharing into overdrive.
It was around this time that Napster shook the music business to its foundations by introducing a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing app that sent illegal MP3 music file sharing into overdrive. The app took off on college campuses and among individual users around the globe, and the music industry could only watch as the MP3 format changed the music business landscape forever. Eventually, Napster ran into legal trouble, but the genie was already out of the bottle as other P2P apps cropped up over the years.
While the digital music pirates were enjoying their new, free audio spoils and the music industry was freaking out, Apple came along and introduced the first version of iTunes in January of 2001, followed by the “1,000 songs in your pocket” original iPod just nine months later. At the time, iTunes used the still popular MP3 format to allow users to put their CDs on the portable iPod device, a move that finally gave Apple a mobile, non-PC hit (setting the stage for the iPhone years later), and helped popularize MP3 players (even though the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player on the market). In 2003, Apple began using the AAC format and went through its own ups and downs regarding DRM with a music industry still struggling to accept the reality of digital file sharing on the internet.
Years later, it’s clear that Apple was more of a boon for the music industry than enemy, and while the fight to apply DRM to digital music and film content still simmers, file sharing continues, only slowed by the fact companies like Apple and others made it more convenient to buy music instead of hunting for MP3 files online.
But in 2017, even Apple has had to change tactics as streaming has, as of 2015, overtaken digital downloads in terms of revenue according to the RIAA. However, digital downloads remain relevant, despite the termination of the MP3 license.
“Most state-of-the-art media services such as streaming or TV and radio broadcasting use modern ISO-MPEG codecs such as the AAC family or in the future MPEG-H,” continues the recent Fraunhofer IIS statement, explaining the reasoning behind the end of its MP3 licensing. “Those [formats] can deliver more features and a higher audio quality at much lower bitrates compared to MP3.”
So does all this mean that the MP3 is dead? Not quite. There’s still a healthy amount of MP3 file sharing online via torrent sites, which offer free music files in all manner of formats (including FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and AAC). But the real thing keeping the venerable MP3 relevant at this point is our newest audio obsession: podcasts.
According to podcast analytics firm Blubrry “60 percent of podcasts are downloaded for playback on-demand,” with many of those files distributed in MP3 format. It turns out that, just like the crackly radio signals of the past, people are perfectly happy to download the voices of their favorite hosts with less than the pristine audio quality they demand of dedicated music files.
But as our habits continue to lean more and more toward the convenience of streaming, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before podcasts stop getting the “download for later” treatment, and move more toward the streaming content model we’re accustomed to on everything from Spotify to Netflix.
For now, the next time you download your favorite podcast or happen upon an old music file in MP3 format, remember that you’re looking at a (slowly) fading format that changed the course of internet history.