Originally published on January 16th, 2001 on Techweb

With Linux becoming a strong alternative to Microsoft’s Windows operating system, some members of the open source community are setting their sights on a new target: the music industry. A group of open source proponents, the Xiphophorus company (named after the swordtail, Xiphophorus helleri, a small freshwater fish often kept in aquariums), has introduced a new sound format called Ogg Vorbis, which promises to deliver better sound quality and 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 (44.1-48.0 kHz, 16+ bit, polyphonic) audio and music at fixed and variable bit rates 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 for 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.”

Stereo With More Than Two Channels

The new format, which uses the extension .OGG, 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, because of a lack of hard drive space, Montgomery began writing audio compression software libraries to make room for more files. He ended up developing a complete CD ripping package entitled CD Paranoia. A few years ago, Moffitt called Montgomery to asked if he wanted to join ICast, a CMGI-backed startup with plans to revolutionize the music industry.

While ICast ended up closing its doors — as did many other dot-coms in 2000 — the project continued. Meanwhile, the MP3 format had already been developed at the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen, Germany, under the leadership of Dieter Seitzer and Heinz Gerhauser. At first, Fraunhofer did not seek to collect royalties on decoders or from companies using MP3 to stream music. But just last September, Fraunhofer announced he had reversed his decision, and would soon seek royalties from developers exploiting the MP3 format. Under the new MP3 license, vendors of the format in hardware or software would have to pay five dollars per copy 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. Thomson, a co-developer of MP3 and the designated collector of future royalties, has recently announced an updated version of MP3 which promises shorter download times and which may include provisions for digital watermarking.

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 advantages 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 support for multiple-channel encoding. Initially, MP3 only encoded a left and a right channel, in order to direct the sound to a two-speaker stereo set. However, new technologies and an increase in the average number of speakers in audiophiles’ households, result in a loss of harmonics when the two-channel format is replayed through a multi-channel stereo. Vorbis allows a person to encode multiple channels, giving the sound greater depth.

While Vorbis developers claim theirs is the only codec that does support multiple channels, some have their doubts. “I think all state-of-the-art codecs today have capability for multiple-channel encoding,” said Gary Greenbaum, codec group manager for RealNetworks (Seattle, Wash.). “If you don’t support multiple-channel encoding these days, you’re not even in the game.”

For streaming content providers and broadcasters, Ogg Vorbis enables them to encode a single audio signal, and make use of its adjustable bit rate feature to scale the signal depending on the recipient’s bandwidth. “One of the nice thing in Vorbis is that it’s built to support bit-rate 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 because we can adjust the bit rate on the fly, depending on a bandwidth. RealNetworks’ SureStream, on the other hand, just switches back and forth between different signals instead of adjusting the signal on the fly.”

Gathering Public Acceptance, Corporate Support

Moffitt mentioned that Vorbis 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. Furthermore, plans are in the works to include Vorbis support in gaming development packages such as F-MOD and Open AL. “We’re going to the people producing music and the people producing software and asking them to convert, not the users,” said Moffitt.

On the distribution end, Ogg Vorbis is currently supported by Freenet and Gnutella, and Napster has announced that it will support .OGG in the 3.0 version of its client. “It’s been really amazing,” said Moffitt, “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.”

“Our goal is not to kill MP3,” added Moffitt. “Digital music may always be called MP3, but it won’t necessarily be in the MP3 format.”

Beyond the MP3 licensing issues, another reason being given for the development a free, open-source codec is the enablement of free speech. “Paying royalties to a company can impede free speech by giving that company the possibility to decide who uses the technology and who doesn’t,” said Moffitt. He added that Radio Free Serbia — which was instrumental in the democratization of the Serbian nation — is now running Ogg Vorbis through IceCast as its streaming technology. Also, a streaming audio provider established by former volunteers of Berkeley, California public radio station KPFA — some of whom were removed forcibly from the station following an unpopular format change — now distributes its online content using Ogg Vorbis. The station is available on occasion through the Winamp music player — not your browser — at location http://kpfa.bpm.ai:5732.

“Combine Ogg Vorbis with Freenet, and all of a sudden no one can stop free speech,” said Moffitt.

But while Vorbis is supported in the Sonique player and a plug-in is available for Winamp, 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.” She added 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 RealNetworks’ 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.”

Indeed, 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 this alternative format, even if it should be deemed technically superior.

“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 have been released.

According to a Microsoft spokesperson, there are no plans to support Ogg Vorbis in Windows Media Player. The spokesperson also pointed out that the recently unveiled Version 8 of Microsoft’s own Windows Media audio and video technology provides nearly three times the quantity of near-CD quality music as MP3, for the same amount of consumed space. While Ogg Vorbis developers have studied Microsoft’s technology, they say they have no plans to develop a plug-in for 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,” said Moffitt. “As a result, they’re slowing down progress in the audio industry as a whole.”

So gathering heartfelt support from the industry may not be as easy as it had once appeared for the creators of Ogg Vorbis. MP3 has engrained itself as a de facto standard, and its licensing issues may make it more appealing to the Recording Industry Association of America, 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 Moffitt. “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.”