Explaining the Headline “The MP3 is DEAD!”

The MP3 is dead. Long live the MP3.

The Fraunhofer Institute of West Germany–yes, that’s how far back this story goes–began work on an audio compression algorithm in the late 80s. The goal was to develop technology that could shrink an audio file down to a size that would allow it to be transmitted along old-school copper telephone lines. After many missteps and setbacks (not to mention a fierce battle with global standards organizations), Fraunhofer’s Motion Pictures Experts Group-Layer 3 (MPEG-3 or just MP3) won the war and by the middle 90s was licensing the encoding technology to companies around the planet.

We all know what happened next. MP3s allowed music to flow over the Internet like water through a river. The music industry and consumer behavior were changed forever.

MP3s were fine for years, but the truth of the matter is that they don’t sound very good when compared to an uncompressed .wav file. And while MP3s may have taken over the world, other companies were working on new, better-sounding technologies with better bitrates and better sound.

The current standard is AAC (advanced audio coding), which is what iTunes uses when selling us digital music. And there’s even better tech coming, most notably MPEG-H.

This means the time has come for Fraunhofer to set the MP3 free. No more licensing the technology. The patents will be allowed to expire. MP3s will become public domain to eventually be superseded by better technology.

The MP3 will be with us for some yet. There are probably trillions of MP3 files out there and plenty of companies will take advantage of the fact that they no longer have to license the tech from Fraunhofer. But eventually, sometime in the future, the MP3 will be the digital equivalent of the 8-track tape.

 

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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