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Ogg Vorbis tunes in to hardware

An open-source, royalty-free audio format may finally appear in audio players alongside MP3 and Windows Media Audio.

Ogg Vorbis, an audio format created to provide a royalty-free alternative to MP3, could at last be making its way into portable digital audio players.

The format reached a milestone 1.0 release earlier this year, and now the Foundation, which coordinates Ogg Vorbis development, has released an open-source Ogg Vorbis player that will work with ordinary digital music player hardware. Xiph has also offered to give hardware makers free engineer time to help them integrate the format into their offerings.

Ogg Vorbis is an open-source project maintained by volunteer developers around the world. Unlike most mainstream audio formats such as MP3, Ogg Vorbis does not use patented technology, allowing it to be offered under an open-source license. This means that developers can have free access to the software and its original source code and can modify and redistribute the software, as long as any modifications are returned to the community.

Software and hardware companies that make MP3 player and encoder software, by contrast, must pay royalty fees to the format's patent holders for each piece of software they distribute.

While Ogg Vorbis has been added to some PC-based music software, until now no hardware vendor has supported it, with the exception of Sharp's Linux-based Zaurus handheld. This is because Ogg Vorbis players have only been designed to work with processors capable of performing floating-point calculations; the chips commonly found in PCs can handle these, but the embedded processors found typically in portable music players cannot.

On Monday, however, the Xiph released "Tremor," a version of the Ogg Vorbis player that doesn't need a floating-point unit, allowing audio player manufacturers to support it for the first time. Tremor has been released under a BSD-style open-source license, Xiph said.

The organization emphasized that adding Ogg Vorbis support would cost hardware makers nothing in license fees, and the group is offering to provide them with any engineering help they may need to integrate the format. Xiph President Emmett Plant added that there is substantial demand for Ogg Vorbis players from the format's enthusiasts. "A lot of people love Vorbis, and they need hardware players," he said in a statement.

Some audio player makers are already considering supporting Ogg Vorbis, Xiph said, although none have committed to the format. Plant cited Hong Kong's Frontier Labs and iRiver among those who have shown interest.

Many manufacturers have said they are playing it safe and are waiting for Ogg Vorbis to develop a large following before they devote any development work to the format. Evolution Technologies, for example, said that it has not ruled out Ogg Vorbis support, but it is making no immediate moves. "When the demand is sufficient, we will support the technology," a company representative said.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.