If you grew up in the 1990s or 2000s, you might have a special connection with the audio format known as MP3. MP3s were the audio format of choice for the ordinary person, audiophiles notwithstanding.
Whether you were ripping a CD onto your computer, downloading an album from iTunes , pirating a song online, or simply copying your friend’s meticulously crafted song collection, you probably chose MP3. Which is why the recent “MP3 is dead” headlines might have unsettled you.
The good news is that, contrary to headlines, the humble MP3 isn’t actually dead. This isn’t the apocalypse, your locally stored songs will still play perfectly well, you’ll still be able to rip CDs, and distribute podcasts as MP3s to boot.
What’s the truth behind the headlines? Let us fill you in.
The MP3 Isn’t Dead
The MP3’s beginnings date back to the late 1980s. The audio format was developed by Fraunhofer ISS, a company in Germany. Since then, we’ve seen MP3s take over the audio world. MP3s are nearly ubiquitous when it comes to storing and playing audio. It is the de facto standard. If you have a piece of hardware or software that can play audio, it can play MP3. From the stereo in your car, to the music player on your phone.
On April 23, 2017 — around a month before the apocalyptic headlines emerged — the MP3 became a patent-free technology in the U.S. All that really happened is that the last of the MP3 patents expired. MP3 isn’t dead, it’s just no longer profitable to its patent holders, the aforementioned Fraunhofer ISS.
How Misinformation Spreads
What we saw here (with the inflammatory “RIP MP3” headlines) was a classic case of publications rewriting a company’s press release, without doing their own research. It doesn’t take a lot to start this chain of misinformation. First, a popular/traditional publication takes the company’s account at face value (without questioning the company’s motivation or incentive to spin a narrative). They make it worse by adding a clickbait headline completely devoid of context.
Other, smaller publications then dive in for clicks, picking the story up as it is, without doing any due diligence. And in a couple of hours your social media feeds are filled with panic over the supposed death of a beloved audio format.
In 2017, this happens way too often. We live in a world where we can’t even agree what the term “fake news” means . This story is another lesson in how we should do a bit of digging on our own before sharing articles with eye-catching headlines. Follow the source, try to weigh the motivation of both the source and the publication before you decide which opinion or fact to believe.
How the Real MP3 Story Affects You
The truth is that technologies don’t die when its creators declare it dead (unless it’s a piece of software such as Yik Yak ). They also don’t die when the patents expire. In fact, the opposite is often true. Technologies die of obsolescence. The internet and we, the people will decide when it’s dead. And MP3 isn’t anywhere near that point in its life cycle.
Windows XP is supposedly dead, but it’s still being used by millions of people all around the world (and is still a target of ransomware ). Pepe the Frog’s founder had a funeral for the chracter last month but that doesn’t mean people will stop using it as a meme. Just like a meme, you can’t kill a technology.
The patents for GIFs expired 10 years ago, and GIFs became popular after the fact . The JPEG format for viewing images was also developed around the same time as MP3. And it’s still alive and kicking. You’ll see JPEG images all over the web (even though when it comes to sharpness and transparent background retention, PNGs are superior ).
Just like GIFs and JPEGs, MP3s will stay alive and well until it genuinely outlives its usefulness. So no, iTunes will not suddenly stop playing your music collection tomorrow. And you’ll still be able to buy songs as MP3s (if you haven’t already switched to streaming).
Up Next: The MP3 Renaissance
Until now, Fraunhofer ISS has earned some money every time someone licensed their technology. Which means they got a cut for every iPod sold, and every piece of software that played MP3s. Now, that has changed. Hardware and software makers no longer need to pay Fraunhofer ISS a cut of their sales. MP3 is now free and open to use.
Just like the GIF or 3D Printing , this could mean that the use of the MP3 format is about to mushroom. App developers that wouldn’t include MP3 support before, now can. Because the technology is free to tinker with, we will see new, novel, and interesting use cases.
Will MP3 Be Replaced?
When Fraunhofer ISS declared the MP3 “dead,” one of the reasons it gave was that the MP3 format is old and so can’t keep up with newer, better formats. The company mentioned AAC as a frontrunner for replacing MP3 (a format for which Fraunhofer ISS still has a patent for). And AAC actually is a good codec. It takes up less space and it’s being used by streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music .
However, there are a few reasons why AAC might not be our audio savior. It’s better only when you’re playing at low bit-rates. On anything over 128 kbps it’s difficult to spot the difference. Second, AAC’s space saving isn’t hugely helpful. I mean, these days, you spend two MP3 songs worth of bandwidth just when you visit a major tech website’s homepage (and multiples of that when you stream a YouTube video ). AAC isn’t this epic, next-generation format. It’s based on MP3 and has a lot in common with our supposedly dearly departed friend. Lastly, AAC requires a licensing fee. While MP3 no longer does.
From where we’re sitting, it seems like MP3 isn’t dead at all. In fact, MP3 is still a mere toddler.
What do you think about the “MP3 is dead” saga? Do you have a personal connection with this audio format? Do you think there’s a better alternative out there that can replace MP3? Something that’s infinitely better? Please share your thoughts in the comments below
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