|Behind the Files - History of MP3
by Gabriel Nijmeh
In just over a couple of years, the MP3 audio file
format has caused a big stir and captured the minds
and hard drives of millions of people worldwide.
MP3, short for Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio
Layer III is a compression format that compresses
audio files with only a small sacrifice in sound
quality. MP3 files can be compressed at different
rates, but the higher the compression, the lower
the sound quality. A typical MP3 compression ratio
of 10:1 is equal to about 1 MB for each minute of
an MP3 song.
It all started in the mid-1980s, at the Fraunhofer
Institut in Germany, where work began on developing
a high quality, low bit-rate audio format. In 1989,
Fraunhofer was granted a patent for the MP3 compression
format in Germany and a few years later it was submitted
to the International Standards Organization (ISO),
and integrated into the MPEG-1 specification. Frauenhofer
also developed the first MP3 player in the early
1990s, which was the first attempt at developing
an MP3 player. In 1997, a developer at Advanced
Multimedia Products created the AMP MP3 Playback
Engine, which is regarded as the first mainstream
MP3 player to hit the Internet. Shortly after, a
couple of creative university students took the
Amp engine, added a user-friendly Windows interface
and called it Winamp. The turning point was in 1998,
when Winamp was offered to the public as a free
music player, and thus began the MP3 craze.
As the MP3 craze mushroomed, it didn't take long
for other developers to start creating a whole range
of MP3 software. New MP3 encoders, CD rippers, and
MP3 players were being released almost every week,
and the MP3 movement continued to gain momentum.
Search engines made it easy to find the specific
MP3 files, and portable MP3 players like the Rio
and the Nomad Jukebox allowed people to copy MP3
songs onto a small portable device, no different
than your Walkman or Discman.
By early 1999, the first peer-to-peer (P2P) file
sharing software application was released, one which
shook the world overnight. Napster, the killer app
that will be remembered like no other MP3-related
software was developed by nineteen-year-old university
student, Shawn Fanning and his idea for Napster
was to allow anyone with an Internet connection
to search and download their favourite songs, in
minutes. By connecting people, Napster created a
virtual community of music fans.
However, along came the Recording Industry Association
of America (RIAA) which as a representative of the
major record companies and owners of the sound recordings,
successfully battled Napster for copyright law infringement
and an injunction was issued that effectively shut
down Napster. The RIAA argument is that all the
free downloading is in breach of copyright laws
and therefore promotes audio piracy. As a result,
file sharing impacts their ability to sell CDs and
make a profit. Despite the legal problems that Napster
has faced and the fact that they are currently not
operational, MP3 file swapping and has continued
on, and for a number of reasons.
A big reason MP3s have become the de-facto audio
standard is that the original patent holders made
it freely available for anyone to develop MP3 software.
This open source model allowed early MP3 pioneers
to develop MP3 software that accelerated the acceptance
of the MP3 audio format.
MP3 being just one of several types digital audio
formats is not necessarily the most efficient or
of highest sound quality. Better compression technologies
have existed for some time now, but the success
of MP3 is due to the relatively open nature of the
format. Companies such as Microsoft and Yamaha have
developed proprietary formats, but have placed restrictions
on how developers can utilize their technology.
For example, Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA)
file format, which they claim is a higher quality
audio format at smaller file sizes, is starting
to gain more acceptance as it comes bundled as the
standard audio format in Windows 98/2000/XP. Microsoft
might be able to challenge the dominance of MP3s
or at the very least offer a second, popular audio
All the downloading and swapping of MP3s has attracted
the wrath of the RIAA because there are no digital
security features associated with MP3, so millions
of songs are freely shared everyday by millions
of users. The files are small enough to be downloaded
easily, or even sent to a friend as an email attachment.
Another thing that makes MP3s very exciting and
compelling is that it is easy for people to become
DJs by mixing their favorite songs. A lot of people
have created their own compilation CDs where they
take all of their favorite songs from different
artists and bands and burn them to CD very quickly
Webcasting or Internet radio has also become very
popular allowing listeners to "stream"
audio on their computers. Unlike downloaded MP3s,
streamed MP3 files aren't stored on your hard drive,
but are broadcast like traditional radio through
your MP3 player. Real Networks was one of the first
to offer streamed audio software, which uses a proprietary
format known as RealAudio. Microsoft allows offers
their own proprietary streaming audio through their
Windows Media Application. If you do a search for
"Internet radio" or "webcasting",
you will find hundreds of Internet radio stations
offering every imaginable type of programming.
Of course, as exciting as MP3s are, there are some
legal and business battles that are being waged.
MP3 itself is not an illegal audio format, but when
people offer up MP3 versions of copyrighted material
that is considered a copyright infringement. The
Home Recording Act allows you to make copies of
your music CDs for personal use but by law, you
are not allowed to distribute or share these files
with friends or family if they do not own a copy
of the CD.
The debate rages on as to whether or not MP3 and
P2P file sharing programs are good for the music
industry. MP3 proponents believe that MP3s help
promote music and musicians by getting the music
heard far and wide. On the other hand, MP3 critics
argue that free music will kill the music industry
and the artists who depend on it. Essentially, it
is a battle for control of music distribution. Artists
can now bypass record labels and distribute their
music very easily and effectively.
A balanced and compromised solution should benefit
artists and music labels. There is no doubt that
artists and musicians should be compensated for
their efforts, yet a lot of new and upcoming bands
distribute free MP3s as way to get their music heard.
As the buzz and excitement builds around the band,
people are more inclined to support the bands by
buying their CDs, attend concerts and purchase other
band merchandise. Ultimately, bands and music labels
probably don't want to bite the hand that feeds
So, where does that leave us? Well, as we have seen
many times over the years, hot technology trends
come and go. However, MP3s have really captured
the ears of music aficionados worldwide. With millions
upon millions of MP3 audio files out there, and
hundreds and maybe even thousands of MP3 related
software that has been developed by software developers
worldwide, there is no doubt that MP3s are here
About the Author
Gabriel Nijmeh is the software editor at MP3-CDBurner.com
- http://www.mp3-cdburner.com, where we feature
software reviews and downloads of MP3 software including
CD rippers, MP3 CD burners, MP3 converters and more.
Stay up-to-date on the latest and hottest MP3 software
downloads and enjoy our MP3 tutorials, FAQs, music
articles and shareware developer profiles.