By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
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 News.com 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?
MP3, Microsoft and Real are battling to become the format of choice. Is Vorbis in direct competition with these?
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?
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?
What do you see as the most viable market for Vorbis?
In short, it's WMA, RealAudio and the other closed standards that are competing for specific niches. Vorbis is meant for the entire world.
How much real need is there for another audio format online?
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?
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.