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Open-source challenge to the musical status quo

Christopher Montgomery believes the Ogg Vorbis audio format can challenge Microsoft, Netscape and even MP3. Do he and his cohort have more than a snowball's chance?


Open-source challenge to the musical status quo
By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET
July 18, 2001, 12:00 p.m. PT

At a moment when online music is increasingly the domain of giant corporations, a small band of independent programmers is working to shake up the status quo by developing a free, high-quality music format.

With a format bearing the unlikely name of "Ogg Vorbis," these programmers want to create an audio technology that competes against Microsoft's Windows Media and RealNetworks' technologies--and perhaps even unseat MP3 as the unrivaled king of the Internet audio world.

That's an even more radical notion today than it was when the project first came into the public eye a year ago. Since then, RealNetworks and Microsoft have entered a new phase of their long-running rivalry in which their respective audio technologies are being tied more closely into their relationships with the big music labels.

Each side recognizes the stakes involved: Whichever one controls the format in which people get their music online will wind up wielding considerable clout throughout the content business. Microsoft and RealNetworks both want to provide the basic technology infrastructure by which audio and video will get distributed. And each is moving closer to the entertainment conglomerates.

The Ogg Vorbis team, led by 29-year-old Christopher Montgomery, believes nobody should be able to exercise that kind of control. The programmers are working under the auspices of the nonprofit Xiphophorus Foundation, a group created to spearhead the open-source efforts. In the past year, the team has released successive beta versions of the Ogg Vorbis format into the digital wilds.

It is now in the final stages of testing the first full release. But in advance of that date, most of the big MP3 player companies, several of the leading music software companies, and Web sites distributing music have begun supporting the team's format.

In a recent interview, Montgomery told CNET his views on how the open-source effort can fit into an ever more corporate online music world.

Q: Where do you see Vorbis fitting in a world where the big labels have started moving online, with planned subscription services such as Pressplay and MusicNet?
A: I see the labels in a role similar to AOL, setting up a carefully guarded kiddie pool for traditional consumers who are either unable or unwilling to deal with the larger world. The Internet dwarfs even AOL, and the role Vorbis has to fill is much larger than the small caves the labels are carving out. Eventually, Vorbis may or may not partially or wholly become the technological basis even the labels are using.

MP3, Microsoft and Real are battling to become the format of choice. Is Vorbis in direct competition with these?
MP3 is no longer really battling; it's no longer being actively developed as a technology, although it's still being added to new products and will be for some time. The Internet dwarfs even AOL, and the role Vorbis has to fill is much larger than the small caves the labels are carving out. MP3 is beginning a long road of eroding market share. RealAudio and (Microsoft's) WMA are the real corporate titans in this battle, and you might as well throw in MP3 Pro as well.

It's silly to say that Vorbis is not in direct competition. Anyone using Vorbis now would be using MP3, WMA or Real if Vorbis did not exist. On the other hand, we're not pushing Vorbis as a commercial product or a handcuff to tie a user to another product. We're competing for the sake of good music and good technology, not just as a means toward a bottom line. It's a difficult position to compete against--good technology for free.

What was the original motivation behind Vorbis?
A number of things came together to make the project a perfect one for me. I'd been doing audio compression research for about five years by 1998, and I was thinking about pulling the Ogg project back off the shelf where it had spent most of 1998. Then Fraunhofer (the owner of the MP3 patents) sent out the cease-and-desist letters that killed all but one of the free MP3 encoder projects.

People had been worried for years that MP3 looked free, but there were all these scary, looming patents. Unisys had lowered the boom on GIF a few years earlier. Suddenly, it stopped being academic when (Fraunhofer) did the same thing with MP3. Some hackers went looking for legal loopholes to keep working on the MP3 standard. I decided to just replace it.

How many people are involved in the programming now, and how do you keep the project going without a corporate parent?
The core is about five people right now. I say "about" because we're reasonably loosely federated, and we work on fairly well-compartmentalized portions of the project. The project never had a corporate sponsor before iCast, and it's not a big deal not to have a corporate guardian now. iCast did us a number of invaluable services during the year of sponsorship, but the code has kept flowing after iCast. My day-to-day life has changed very little since the dot-com bubble burst.

What do you see as the most viable market for Vorbis?
All of them. Vorbis is meant to be a standard audio technology, and we're giving it away such that companies, organizations and individuals have no cost or licensing concerns in adopting it. It is intended to be the means of audio data exchange and storage on the Net, the same way that all e-mail and Web pages use a single, interoperable standard.

In short, it's WMA, RealAudio and the other closed standards that are competing for specific niches. Vorbis is meant for the entire world.

For a while, open source was being touted as the solution to all the world's problems, just like every industry fad that's preceded it. It won't. How much real need is there for another audio format online?
Little to none, honestly. If Fraunhofer (and all the other MPEG consortium members who hold intellectual property claims on MP3) made the MP3 format and all the associated patents public domain today, one could argue that there's no compelling reason for anything else. MP3 is showing some real technological age, but frankly it's still good enough for most things.

However, given that Fraunhofer has taken its standard back, we need something free to replace it, and while we're at it, we might as well improve on it too. Aside from Vorbis, the other codecs that are being thrust on us have very little arguable reason to exist, other than to muddy the corporate waters and give the big technology companies something to fight over. The vast majority of electronics and software companies don't care about the battles; they just want something reliable and accessible to use to build their own products. Vorbis delivers that better than anything else.

How is the open-source community being affected as corporate funding and momentum dries up in the online music world?
Obviously, free money is drying up, and I can't say I'm entirely sad to see it go. Things are settling back toward a little more sanity, and I say it's a good thing. We're still much better funded than we were in 1993.

For a while, open source was being touted as the solution to all the world's problems, just like every industry fad that's preceded it. It isn't. Open source is a good engineering tool, and public infrastructure should be open. Free software serves a political need in keeping the computing public practically enfranchised; otherwise, society will degenerate into Microsoft and the consumer-cattle of everyone else.

Those are the important things to remember, and a lot of people forgot that when venture capitalists with suitcases full of money were running around.