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An online music format that challenges MP3 in quality but owes nothing to any corporation will finally debut this weekend. Designed for free public use, the Ogg Vorbis format owes its existence to a single event. If Thomson Multimedia weren’t demanding license fees for MP3, “there would be no need for Vorbis,” says project manager Jack Moffitt.

Seeking an alternative to MP3 and proprietary formats like Apple’s Quicktime and Microsoft’s Windows Media, a group of software developers has been working on Ogg Vorbis for nearly 33 months. In a 1999 statement, lead programmer Chris Montgomery wrote that “the Ogg project works to put the foundation standards of Internet audio into the public domain, where all Internet standards belong.”

The preliminary release, available from the Vorbis Web site, is the first version of the codec (encoder/decoder) with all features fully implemented. While not an MP3 product, it achieves comparable performance, backers claim, by attaining “CD quality” at a bit rate of 128 kilobits per second. Next month’s official release of Vorbis 1.0 should achieve CD quality in the 80-kilobit-per-second range, comparable to the newly released MP3Pro.

Growth of a Standard

In 1996, U.S. Patent no. 5,579,430 was granted to Fraunhofer Gesellschaft in Munich for a “digital encoding process for transmitting and storing acoustical signals and, in particular, music signals.” (Fraunhofer Gesellschaft is the parent company of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, creator of the core technologies incorporated in the MP3 standard.)

One of 18 MP3-related patents held by Fraunhofer and patent partner Thomson, this is the basis of their current claim to a “fair share” of MP3 revenues. However, Thomson did not assert its claim until the fall of 1998. By then, the public had already adopted MP3 in an online music explosion that will likely remain unique in Internet history.

MP3 was originally designed for music transmission over telephone lines. Few, if any, saw it as a candidate for widespread use on the Internet when it was adopted in 1992 by the Motion Pictures Expert Group, a subgroup of the International Standardization Organization (ISO). As such, it became known as MPEG Audio Layer 3-MP3 for short.

Henri Linde, Thomson’s vice president of new business, assumed responsibility for MP3 licensing in 1994. No one at Thomson or Fraunhofer saw what was coming.

In 1996, Pentium-class PCs with multi-gigabyte hard disks provided the first suitable desktop platform for high-quality audio compression. Only one more ingredient was needed, and “MP3 was in the right place at the right time,” Linde says.

Late that year, Fraunhofer released an MP3 encoder and decoder, together with a Windows MP3 player, for noncommercial use. Soon the first MP3 recordings began to circulate on the Web.

In 1997, the number and quality of MP3 sites on the Web grew exponentially, with new homegrown MP3 players vying for honors in a hacker’s heaven reminiscent of the early 1980s. All were based on elaborations of ISO’s publicly available MP3 source code.

By the end of 1998, most college students had become aware of MP3s as the Internet’s first underground killer app. (So had the Recording Industry Association of America.) A solid consumer base had formed, and hardware manufacturers raced to produce pocket-sized MP3 players.

I Want Your MP3

In this heady atmosphere, Fraunhofer’s September 1998 “letter of infringement” to MP3 software developers sent shock waves around the Net. The letter declared that “to make, sell and/or distribute products using the [MPEG Layer 3] standard and thus our patents, you need to obtain a license under these patents from us.”

Development work stopped on popular products like Plugger, CDEX, 8Hz and Blade. Free MP3 encoders began to disappear from Web sites.

Inside the Ogg

With the concept of an audio encoder free of licensing entanglements already in the air, Montgomery, a recent MIT graduate, began work on Ogg Vorbis, named after the “bad guy” in Terry Pratchett’s novel Small Gods. He was soon joined by other developers, with the total crew ranging up to 25 active programmers at times.

The point, he says, “is to put something out there that everyone can use without having to worry about one of the MPEG consortium members saying, ‘We’ll let you know in six months what the licensing fees will be, and we’ll renegotiate every six months.’ Or, ‘We’re not going to charge you for it right now, but you may be getting a letter in a year.’”

Closed-source protocols “exist by definition to serve the bottom line of a corporation,” he wrote in 1999. In contrast, “the foundations of the Internet today are built of a long, hardy history of open development, free exchange of ideas and unprecedented levels of intellectual cooperation. These foundations continue to weather the storm caused by the corporate world’s rush to cash in.”

Staying Clear of Patents

Montgomery says he finds MP3 patents “annoying but not abusive.” The Fraunhofer patents “are fundamental to the way MP3 does things,” he says, “but the way MP3 does things is, thankfully, not the only way to do it. We don’t infringe on their patents, so we don’t have many worries.”

If there is any litigation, it’s going to come from a desire to put Vorbis out of business, he says. “On the other hand, if we defend ourselves successfully, they could lose the patent.”

The MP3-patent claims have never been challenged in court-or even in licensing negotiations, as Thomson’s Linde confirms.

Rocking in the Free World

“Personally, I like the open-source movement,” Linde says. “However, it is not a funded movement. If the effort is not to commercialize it, how good a product can it be?”

Vorbis developers respond that the Vorbis codec is currently incorporated in leading MP3 software players like Winamp and Sonique, as well as Sonic Foundry’s Siren Jukebox 2.0 and Sound Forge audio editor.

In addition, game developers, including major player Electronic Arts, are showing interest in reducing development costs by tapping Vorbis. Two games have shipped with Vorbis-enabled audio so far: Activision and Realistic Entertainment’s “Startrek Away Team” and Bohemia Interactive Studios’ “Operation Flashpoint.”

Iomega’s HipZip is the first portable player to support OGG files.

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