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Music lovers find a new hero

January 09, 2003 11:14 IST


Anita Bora

The closing down of Napster did nothing to dampen the spirit of music lovers trading MP3 encoded music and audio files. Dozens of peer-to-peer derivatives sprang up to take its place. But now, the future of the format is itself under threat.

Under the awkward name of Ogg Vorbis (OV), this open standard music compression format is emerging as a major contender in the race. It is an open source system, supposedly superior to MP3s. What's more attractive is the fact that it has no associated licensing fee.

Christopher Montgomery of MIT started Ogg Vorbis since he disliked the licensing fees imposed by the patent holder for MP3 technology, the Fraunhofer Institute.

Here is a lowdown on the new kid on the block.

What is Ogg Vorbis?
According to the site FAQ
, Ogg Vorbis is a new audio compression format, roughly comparable to other formats used to store and play digital music such as MP3, VQF and AAC. It is different from others because it is 'completely free, open and unpatented'.

It is the current Ogg multimedia project being developed by the Xiph Foundation. In case you're wondering, the name has been derived from the two words. 'Ogg' meaning a tactical maneuver derived from the network game 'Netrek' and Vorbis, named after the Terry Pratchett character from the book Small Gods.

Who is the team behind Ogg?
The team is the Xiph Foundation, a non-profit organisation 'dedicated to protecting the foundations of Internet multimedia from control by private interests'. It is currently working on this open-source development effort. The format has been under research for years and the first version was released in July, 2002.

What does open standard mean?
It's in the public domain, completely free for commercial and non-commercial use. Commercial developers may independently write Ogg Vorbis software compatible with the specifications for no charge and without any restriction of any kind. The Vorbis software libraries are distributed under a BSD-like licence available on the website.

MP3, on the other hand, is not an open standard. This means that the Fraunhofer Institute who owns the patent to it can and does charge for its use. It has licensed rights to Thomas Multimedia who is in charge of collecting patent royalties. Since it is the developers who pay the fees, end users do not realise that it is patented technology.

How does Ogg Vorbis work?
It works in a similar manner to an MP3 file. Vorbis files have the extension .ogg and the technology been designed to completely replace all proprietary, patented audio formats like MP3. This means you can encode all your music or audio content in Vorbis and play it over any media player that supports the software.

What are its advantages over MP3?
Much of the sound data is removed when MP3 files are created, resulting in a file of inferior quality. Vorbis on the other hand used superior acoustic models to reduce the damage. Thus, the music will sound much better when you play an .ogg file. The file will also be smaller in size.

This is good news for music fans who will be able to listen to high quality music as the format should be compatible with several hardware players soon. There have been reports of Real Media incorporating the Ogg plug-in into its media player so that you can listen to .ogg files.

Also, you do not have to worry about licensing or patent issues.

Can I convert MP3 to OV files?
You can convert any audio format to Ogg Vorbis. Converting an MP3 file to a Vorbis file will involve first decoding the MP3 file to an uncompressed format like WAV and then recompressing it using the Ogg encoder.

The decoded MP3 file will be missing parts of the original audio. When converted to an Ogg Vorbis format, it will either sound same as your MP3 or worse. Since many players are compatible to both forms, there is no reason to switch the format of a file. To exploit its full potential, Ogg Vorbis is recommended from original audio sources (like CDs). In this case, the files will be smaller and better in quality than MP3s.

What hardware and software can support Ogg Vorbis?
Encoding and playback is possible via a wide variety of popular software. Popular players like WinAmp, Sonique, FreeAmp have created plug-ins that support Vorbis files.  It is also supported in audio applications like Cdex, Sire Jukebox and GoldWave. However, it is not supported by any publicly available hardware as yet. This page 
has a list of software that supports Ogg Vorbis.

Will Ogg Vorbis replace MP3?
In this article 'C
ould Ogg Vorbis Replace MP3?' the author Steve McCannell is quoted as saying that both 'online music companies and consumers (who may already have a large collection of MP3) will need to be won over by the Vorbis project if it is to make its mark in the marketplace'. John Dvorak, another industry expert expresses his opinion about whether Ogg Vorbis will post a serious threat to other file formats.

This feature does not see the end of MP3 so soon, but admits that as a technology it is 'knocking on for ten years old now, and that's an aeon when you consider the speed at which the Net's developed, so it's no great surprise that it's starting to show its age'. For Ogg Vorbis developers, this could only be good news.

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