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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 format choice. 

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 and easily.

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 them. 

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 to stay. 

Gabriel Nijmeh is the software editor for your MP3 audio software resource for ripping, converting, mixing and burning CDs and MP3s. Stay up-to-date on the latest and hottest free MP3 software downloads and enjoy our MP3 tutorials, FAQs, music articles and software reviews.

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