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Even Its Creator Can’t Kill MP3

The MP3 is dead, we’re to believe. That’s because the technology’s inventor, the Fraunhofer Institute, has ended licensing of the patented technologies needed for the encoding and decoding of MP3 files.

Reality, of course, it a little more complicated. As Fraunhofer itself clarified in a blog post this past week, the licensing program ended because the last patent expired April 23, not because they somehow pulled the plug on MP3 altogether. That’s the thing with patents, they have a defined lifespan, after which they expire. Then anyone is free to implement the technology described in the patent, without owing royalties to the original patent holder.

The MP3 isn’t quite dead, its owner just doesn’t really own it anymore.

Dead Like Betamax?

Still, I keep reading the headline that “MP3 is dead.” But what exactly would it mean for MP3 to be dead? Would all of our MP3 players suddenly cease to work? Would our smartphones start choking on that Fleetwood Mac CD you ripped in 2005? Would iTunes refuse to play that Radiohead bootleg you downloaded a decade ago?

While declarations like “the MP3 is dead” seem familiar to other cries of obsolescence like, “vinyl is dead,” “cassettes are dead,” or “the CD is dead,” the MP3 is not a physical format like a record, tape or disc. A physical media format begins its decline when manufacturers quit making the media itself, and goes on life support when playback equipment is no longer made. We can consider it dead when finding working players becomes difficult to near impossible, and so nearly entirely impractical to use at all.

Of course, rumors of the death of the three physical formats I just cited are exaggerated, since you can still buy new media and playback devices. A Betamax videocassette is much closer to dead, even if you might still scout the occasional working VCR on eBay or at a thrift store.

But as a file format, rather than a physical format, at what point is MP3 dead? Already, as its creators note, the format has been surpassed in quality by AAC files, which give better fidelity in the same file size. Moreover, as most people’s digital storage capacity and internet bandwidth have increased, we’re seeing the rise of uncompressed audio formats, like ALAC and FLAC. As well, high resolution, better-than-CD-quality files are growing in popularity.

Yet, if you find a 15 year-old MP3 file on an old hard drive you’ll still have no problem listening to it on your smartphone or computer. It will sound as good (or bad) as it did when it was first encoded.

You Can’t Kill MP3

So, really, MP3 will probably never die, at least not in the way Betamax will. The technology to encode and decode MP3 files is out there, and much of it is now free of any licensing constraints. Programmers and engineers can continue to include it in software and hardware forever, if they see fit.

I don’t make this argument as an MP3 fanboy. While it was a truly revolutionary technology that came at the precisely right time when home internet because just fast enough to transfer music files, and computers became just fast enough to decode a file like an MP3 in real-time, it is imperfect and has been superseded in terms of fidelity. As I’ve written before, I wish internet radio stations would move away from MP3 to formats that sound better, even over slow connections. Many do offer AAC streams alongside their MP3 streams, but still too many only offer MP3.

Why Would You Want MP3 Dead, Anyway?

I’m not necessarily arguing that internet radio or record labels abandon MP3 wholesale. There are still players and other devices that don’t support newer formats, and I’m not a fan of forced obsolescence. Offering an MP3 option for an internet radio stream or song download costs very little extra, especially when compared to offering an album or movie in multiple physical formats.

Why would you want MP3 dead, anyway? I get tired of tech media triumphalism, always looking for wins and fails, ready to declare some media, format, platform or device dead, only then doing a 180 when some trend-spotter realizes the kids these days are listening to records and their iPhones.

The nice thing about digital technologies is that they don’t necessarily have to die in the same way as Betamax or laserdisc. Just take for example old home computers, like the Apple II or Commodore 64. They haven’t been manufactured in nearly a generation. But because the stuff of a computer is really software, emulators exist which let experimenters and enthusiasts run a virtual home computer on their Windows PC or Mac. In fact, thanks to the hard work of volunteer programmers and software archivists, at the Internet Archive you can even run software from dozens of vintage home computers and video game consoles right in your browser.

Long Live MP3, Though I May Not Choose It Any More

The MP3 is not dead, and probably will never die in any meaningful way. That said, if I’m ripping a CD today, I’m going to choose AAC if I need to optimize for storage. If I’m ripping it so I don’t have to use the physical media, then I’ll choose FLAC or ALAC, because they’ll be bit-perfect identical copies of that original CD. I won’t choose MP3 because today it’s too much of a compromise.

The great thing about an uncompressed FLAC or ALAC file is that, should I need an MP3 of it somewhere down the line, I can easily make one. But if all I have is an MP3, there’s no restoring the data and quality that was lost. Like a photocopy of a painting you threw away, there’s no restoring the original.

That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to the archive of MP3s I still own. Buying music on MP3 made sense fifteen years ago, and those files don’t sound terrible at all, even if a CD copy (or high-res version) likely would sound better. I hate being on the audiophile treadmill of rebuying music every time a new version or format comes out. I’d rather enjoy those old MP3s than anxiously shop around trying to upgrade.

Got lots of MP3s? Relax, don’t worry. They’ll be dead long after you are.

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One Response to Even Its Creator Can’t Kill MP3

  1. RK Henderson May 26, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    It’s worth remembering that MP3 is still the standard today, and like all standards it will be a long time “dying”. If you want to guarantee that _everyone_ can listen to a livestreamed radio station now, it has to be an MP3 stream. Literally nothing else has the market coverage. (Try playing an AAC stream in your browser and you’ll see what I mean.)

    Similarly, CD players vary greatly in the formats they can handle. How long did it take for MP3-capable players to become normal? For years we had to convert files to AIFF before burning, or we couldn’t listen to them in our cars. Well, now MP3 is profiting from the same conservatism.

    So yeah. Rumours of the MP3s demise are clickbait. Will it come eventually? Probably. (C.f. RealAudio.) But our gizmos and software will retain the ability to play and encode MP3 for a long, long time, given it’s prominence today.

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