Today, the most easily downloadable digital music sits in one of three formats: MP3, Real Audio and Windows Media Audio (.WMA). All three use compression algorithms to shrink huge files into manageable sizes, while retaining much of the clarity and quality we've come to expect in the CD age. The problem is that these formats are proprietary. Microsoft Corp. owns .WMA, RealNetworks controls Real Audio, and the German Fraunhofer Institute owns (and extracts royalties for) MP3. As a result, some smaller vendors and music makers can't afford to play in the digital audio game, while some listeners are bugged by the thought that their favorite tunes are held hostage by corporate-owned formats.
Enter Ogg Vorbis -- open-source software created by the Xiph.org Foundation that will let anyone create applications to make or play back multimedia files, at a quality as good as or better than the best commercial code and without the overhead of royalties, restrictive licences or other fees. Ogg Vorbis (Ogg named after a character in a video game and Vorbis after a character in a science fantasy novel) is the digital music portion of Xiph's in-development multimedia suite of tools for creating and distributing digital audio and video free from the controls of large corporations. The video code is scheduled to roll out next June (all can be downloaded from www.xiph.org).
Free audio and video software is a compelling proposition, but Ogg's creators -- two full-timers living off unemployment checks and donations, along with four or five volunteers -- say they don't have the time, or the inclination, to create a movement à la Linux. For Ogg Vorbis to take off in 2003, end users who want to make digital music as cheaply as possible without sacrificing sound quality must spread the word.
In the meantime, Ogg faces the problems of any new product entering an established marketplace. "You have other compression technologies from MP3 to .WMA, to whatever else might be out there," says Mike Paxton, senior analyst at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat/MDR. "These are accepted as industry standards and are supported by the [vendors]" that already produce software and hardware that support the existing formats.
None of that bothers Emmett Plant, the Philadelphia-based CEO of Xiph.org Foundation, who helped start the project after being laid off from Web-hosting company Digital Island during one of its multiple purges. "We present an alternative," he says. "The fact that our alternative kicks theirs is just a bonus."
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