MP3, the digital audio coding format, changed the way we listen to music and drove the adoption of countless new devices over the last couple of decades. And now, it's dead. The developer of the format announced this week that it has officially terminated its licensing program.
Spotify has been the biggest music streaming service to find a business model that users can accept, and music labels can endure. In its early days, the company positioned itself as "a viable alternative to music piracy". But allegedly, the company's beta was filled with pirated MP3 files.
The actual ownership history of the various patent rights involved in MP3 technology is complicated and messy. But the Fraunhofer Institute has claimed the right to licence certain MP3 patents to software developers who want to "distribute and/or sell decoders and/or encoders" for it. The announcement that the company will end its licensing program was accompanied by a statement that reads in part:
Although there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today, mp3 is still very popular amongst consumers. However, 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. Those can deliver more features and a higher audio quality at much lower bitrates compared to mp3.
The decision is largely symbolic, but it's kind of like when all manufacturers start installing CD-ROMs instead of floppy drives. There will be some stragglers who still support the MP3 but newer formats will be the standard. AAC — or "Advanced Audio Coding," — was developed in part by the Fraunhofer Institute and is considered the standard today.
The MP3 is dead but its effect on the digital landscape is profound. It enabled easier downloading of audio files during the broadband days of the internet and drove technical newcomers to join the cyber age. The iPod and iTunes both fuelled a new era for Apple and led to the iPhone and all of its imitators that dominate the way we communicate today.
Unlike vinyl or the cassette, it seems unlikely that MP3 will ever have a nostalgic resurgence. The audio quality is trash by modern standards and some research has even suggested that its compression reinforces perceived negative emotional characteristics in musical instruments to the detriment of positive emotional characteristics.
In honour of the MP3, let's all listen to the song ("Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega) that Karlheinz Brandenburg used as a reference track while he was developing it. Below that, you'll find an embed of all the audio that's lost on the track when it's run through MP3 compression.