Ogg Vorbis: MP3 Contender?

With Linux becoming a strong alternative to Microsoft’s operating system, some members of the open source community are setting their sights on a new target: the music industry. The group has introduced a new sound format called Ogg Vorbis, which promises to deliver better sound quality or smaller digital music files than the popular MP3 file format.

Ogg Vorbis is a fully open, non-proprietary, patent-and-royalty-free, general-purpose compressed audio format for high quality (44.1-48.0kHz, 16+ bit, polyphonic) audio and music at fixed and variable bitrates from 16 to 128 kbps per channel

according to a statement on the official Ogg Vorbis site.

MP3 was designed by committees so it ended up with a bunch of useless junk in it says Jack Moffitt, project manager on Ogg Vorbis. Because we designed Vorbis from the ground up, we have streamlined a lot of the technology and created better algorithms for encoding and decoding.

The new format, which uses the extension .OGG, was developed as an alternative to MP3 and already has a long history. Seven years ago, Chris Montgomery, now one of the leaders on the Ogg Vorbis project, wanted to burn his CD collection to his computer. However, the hard drive he had at the time was too small to carry a lot of files. Montgomery started to write some audio compression software libraries to fit more files on his hard drive. He ended up developing a complete CD ripping package called CD Paranoia. A couple of years ago, Moffitt called Montgomery and asked him if he wanted to join ICast, a CMGI backed start-up that was to revolutionize the music industry.

Meanwhile, MP3 was developed at the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen, Germany, under the leadership of Dieter Seitzer and Heinz Gerhauser. Fraunhofer did not seek to collect royalties on decoders or from companies using MP3 to stream music. However, Fraunhofer announced last September that it would begin to seek royalties. Under the new MP3 license, software producers and hardware manufacturers would have to pay five dollars per copy of their software or hardware sold. Furthermore, MP3 sites would have to pay one percent of their revenues or one cent per download to distribute MP3 encoded files. Fraunhofer Institute has licensed its rights to Thomson Multimedia, which collects the growing patent royalties.

While ICast ended up closing its doors, as many other dotcoms did in 2000, the project continued. When word spread that MP3 could become a fairly expensive solution, Ogg Vorbis started getting more attention from software manufacturers, hardware makers, and the general music community.

Among the features that Ogg Vorbis developers tout as an advantage over MP3 are better sounds, smaller footprint and better recovery when streaming a file. “MP3 uses filter banks to encode the signal and MDCP to decode it, which results in a loss of quality,” said Moffitt. “Vorbis skips the filter bank and relies solely on MDCP, which means that we end up with smaller files for the same quality or larger files with better sound”.

Another reason for the better sound Vorbis offers is that it supports multiple channel encoding. Initially, MP3 only encoded a left and a right channel, to direct the sound to a two speaker set and create a stereo effect. However, new technologies and an increase in the average number of speakers in audiophiles’ household means that some harmonics are lost in the process. Vorbis allows a person to encode their sound file across multiple channels, which gives the sound greater depth. While Vorbis developers claim that it is the only codec to support multiple channels, some have their doubts. “I think all state of the art codecs today have capability for multiple channels encoding” said Gary Greenbaum, codec group manager for Real Networks. “If you don’t support multiple channel encoding these days, you’re not even in the game.”

On the streaming end, Vorbis can also chop up just a few packets instead of going between streams. Broadcasters just need to encode their signal once and use the adjustable bit rate depending on bandwidth. “One of the nice thing in Vorbis is that it’s built to support bitrate scaling said Moffitt. As you go through the packet, you need less and less data. If the bandwidth drops, you’ll get a slight quality reduction but you will still get audio and because we can we can adjust the bitrate on the fly depending on a bandwidth. Real Networks’s SureStream on the other hand, just switches back and forth between different signals instead of adjusting the signal on the fly.

We’re going to the people producing music and the people producing software and ask them to convert, not to the users” he added, mentioning that Vorbis was already included in a few gaming development packages like F-MOD and Open AL.

Furthermore, the audio format is now supported by a number of music encoding software packages like the popular SIREN Jukebox 2.0 from Sonic Foundry and the PhatNoise Music Jukebox. “Our goal is not to kill MP3,” said Moffitt. “Digital music may always be called MP3 but I won’t necessarily be in the MP3 format.”

On the distribution end, Ogg Vorbis is currently supported in Freenet, Gnutella and Napster has announced that it will support the format in the 3.0 version of its client. “It’s been really amazing,” said Moffit, “all the players have been coming to us, telling us that they would use the technology in their packages. Michael Robertson of MP3.com was an early supporter of our technology and a lot of his developers are familiar with Vorbis.”

Beyond the MP3 licensing issues, one of the reason given for releasing a free open source codec was free speech. “If you are talking about paying royalties to a company, it can impede free speech by giving that company the possibility to decide who uses the technology and who doesn’t” said Moffitt, adding that Radio Free Serbia, which was instrumental in the democratization of Serbia, was running Ogg Vorbis through IceCast as their streaming technology. Another example of an organization using Ogg Vorbis for online protest was that of KPFA, an online radio station set up by fired employees of a San Francisco area public radio station as an alternative to the station they had all been fired from due to a format change. “Combine Ogg Vorbis with Freenet and all of a sudden no one can stop free speech,” said Moffit.

But while it is supported in the Sonique player and there is a plug-in available for the WinAmp player, few of the larger audio player companies have given much support to Ogg Vorbis. Anne Burkart, spokesperson for Winamp, said that native support of the Ogg Vorbis format would “depend on where things go in the market and industry,” stressing that “the philosophy behind winamp is to remain format agnostic.”

“We’ve done our due diligence on it and we don’t believe it’s state of the art,” said Greenbaum. “At the current time, Ogg Vorbis is a very weak signal we’re listening to. Furthermore, we’ve heard that there may be some intellectual property issues related to the Ogg Vorbis codec.”

Whether this is true, analysts say Thomson and the Fraunhofer Institute are likely to file patent lawsuits the moment Vorbis appears to be a viable market candidate. By creating a perception of uncertainty around Vorbis’ future, MP3’s parents could prevent conservative digital music companies from adopting it.

“The best solution around the IP issue is to have them write their own plug in,” said Greenbaum. Moffitt is already working on a RealPlayer plug-in for Ogg Vorbis, which he intends to release in February, after beta 4 of the encoder and decoder are released.

Microsoft has no plans to support Ogg Vorbis in the Windows Media Player, according to a Microsoft spokesperson, who also pointed out that the recently unveiled Version 8 Windows Media audio and video technology provides nearly 3 times the amount of near-CD quality music compared to MP3 technology. While Ogg Vorbis developers have looked at Microsoft’s technology, they are not developing a plug-in for the Windows Media Player. “Microsoft is destroying the efforts of other people because they don’t give you any SDK for making extensions or adding new formats in the Microsoft media player,” said Moffitt. “As a result, they are slowing down progress in the audio industry as a whole.”

But support from the industry may not be as easy as it appears. MP3 has ingrained itself as a de facto standard and the licensing issues may make it more appealing to the RIAA, which has been looking for a way for music companies to get remunerated for online music. Right now, we’re trying to focus on the audio technology, admits Moffit, adding that digital rights management companies can write wrappers that go around Ogg Vorbis to distribute the files but security is not our primary concern at this point. We just want to develop an audio format that is more open and sounds better than MP3.”

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