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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
Time to dump MP3s?
MP3 was a great audio format in its day, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson, but that day has passed.

Apple digital music player iPod
Apple has its own digital music format for the iPod
I was sitting on the train the other day indulging in a bit of unconscious iPod flaunting - constantly readjusting the little white buds in my ear, checking track names as an excuse to remove the shiny white toy from my pocket, that sort of thing - when I noticed that the person opposite me had a different sort of digital music player.

There was no way to tell what he was listening to, but even if it had been something very cool, I could not have suggested that we swap some tracks and share our libraries, as none of the digital music players made to date will let you.

The record companies would not like it, as they would say it was piracy to share the odd track with a friend.

The hardware manufacturers themselves probably would not support it either, as it would mean working together and agreeing standards in what is an intensely competitive market.

And even if we could have copied the files, my train companion was probably a Windows user and listening to music stored using Media Player's WMA format, so I would not have been able to play his stuff anyway.

Apple, which makes the iPod, has decided that it would be bad for business to make their customer's lives easier by letting them listen to WMA files and wants us to stick with their chosen format, called AAC, instead.

We might, after all, decide not to buy music from their online music store, or another hardware manufacturer might come up with a nicer, cheaper or better player than theirs.

Music shares

There is a convenient myth that markets are about giving people what they want. But at the early stages of any new technology, when the desire is not there because nobody really knows what is being offered, they are much more about grabbing customers and locking out the competition.

And at this stage in the development of portable music players, when most people are not that interested in them or cannot afford them, it is about trying to be in the best position when the mass market breakthrough happens.

Bill Thompson
There is no reason to defend MP3, no reason why everyone who currently listens to MP3s stored on their hard drive should not move to something significantly better
That means not giving the early adopters what they want, like players that can play any format and are easy to upgrade.

One format that almost every player can cope with, of course, is good old MP3.

Originally developed in 1988 and adopted as a standard by the Motion Picture Experts Group (Mpeg), ISO-Mpeg Audio Layer-3 (to give it its full name) was chosen by a number of programmers looking for ways to take large music files off CDs and rip them for storage on their computers.

The resulting files were small enough to be traded over the net, and MP3 was the format used by Napster and other file-sharing and peer-to-peer networks in the late 1990's.

It is still the one format that almost anything will play, a fact that has given it a lease of life it really does not deserve.

There are many things wrong with MP3 and only one thing right.

The right thing is that it does not come with any form of digital rights management.

Sound advice

Once you have got an MP3 of a song you can copy it, share it, burn it to disc, play it on as many portable devices as you want and, crucially, write or download software to convert it into any other format you fancy.

The wrong things are that it is old and no longer up to the job. In order to keep file sizes down MP3 encoding loses a lot of data, a lot more than modern formats, and this shows in the quality of the listening experience.

The way it compresses files and plays them back means that the music too often sounds awful on anything but tinny laptop speakers or cheap earphones.

We cannot let some sort of techno-nostalgia get in the way here.

There is no reason to defend MP3, no reason why everyone who currently listens to MP3s stored on their hard drive should not move to something significantly better.

And there is no reason why older MP3 players should not be upgraded to play newer and better formats, including the open source Ogg Vorbis.

Windows alternative

New formats do not have to come with rights management, so the key benefit of MP3s for music fans remains.

Our ears deserve a better format than MP3
I have already copied all of my old CDs to my iTunes music library where they are stored as AAC files, but I can copy them, play them and burn them to CD without restriction.

It is only music I buy from an online music store, a temptation I have so far resisted, that is limited.

I could do the same if I was using Microsoft's WMA.

My friend Tony, obsessed with the highest fidelity "lossless encoding" of his music, has a multi-gigabyte setup for his digital music and uses WMA. He simply converts his files to the format needed for his portable players when required, even using MP3 if he has to.

Part of the problem is that MP3 has become shorthand for digital music in the press, especially in the non-technical press where talk of formats and standards and encoding rapidly confuses the journalists, never mind their readers.

A catchy technical-sounding abbreviation, one that was burned into public consciousness as Napster rose and fell, is a lot easier to write than "digitally encoded music and any associated codecs".

Although we might be stuck with the term for some time to come, I hope we will not actually be using this old, unsuitable and rather inadequate file format for much longer.

In the early days of Napster I remember hearing a parody of Dire Straits' Money for Nothing, which included the refrain "I want my MP3".

Now it should at least be "I want my AAC", without any DRM, of course. Our ears deserve better than a format from the last millennium.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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