Behind Files: History of MP3 by Gabriel Nijmeh
In just over a couple of years, MP3 audio file format has caused a big stir and captured 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 higher compression, lower 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 mid-1980s, at 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 MP3 compression format in Germany and a few years later it was submitted to International Standards Organization (ISO), and integrated into MPEG-1 specification. Frauenhofer also developed first MP3 player in early 1990s, which was first attempt at developing an MP3 player. In 1997, a developer at Advanced Multimedia Products created AMP MP3 Playback Engine, which is regarded as first mainstream MP3 player to hit Internet. Shortly after, a couple of creative university students took Amp engine, added a user-friendly Windows interface and called it Winamp. The turning point was in 1998, when Winamp was offered to public as a free music player, and thus began MP3 craze.
As 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 MP3 movement continued to gain momentum. Search engines made it easy to find specific MP3 files, and portable MP3 players like Rio and Nomad Jukebox allowed people to copy MP3 songs onto a small portable device, no different than your Walkman or Discman.
By early 1999, first peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing software application was released, one which shook world overnight. Napster, 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 Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) which as a representative of major record companies and owners of 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 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 legal problems that Napster has faced and 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 de-facto audio standard is that 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 acceptance of MP3 audio format. MP3 being just one of several types digital audio formats is not necessarily most efficient or of highest sound quality. Better compression technologies have existed for some time now, but success of MP3 is due to relatively open nature of 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 standard audio format in Windows 98/2000/XP. Microsoft might be able to challenge dominance of MP3s or at very least offer a second, popular audio format choice.