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Mar 00 Online

Volume Number: 16 (2000)
Issue Number: 3
Column Tag: MacTech Online

MacTech Online

by Jeff Clites (

The MP3 Phenomenon

It's nearly impossible today to pick up a magazine or newspaper and avoid seeing an article about MP3s. They're popular and surrounded by legal controversy - all the makings of a good media festival. And if you go to VersionTracker and run a search, you'll quickly find out that the Macintosh community is no more resistant to the craze than anyone else, if you didn't know this already. Hype aside, this is the sort of thing which should grab a developer's attention, because there's a big market for anything which plays, produces, converts, organizes, streams, or finds MP3s.

There's a second reason for Macintosh developers to be excited, beyond the sheer popularity, and that's QuickTime. There are three things which everyone agrees that Apple does like no other company: interfaces, multimedia, and consumer excitement. There's no question that QuickTime is right at the intersection of these strengths (despite the questionable design of the QuickTime 4 Movie Player's interface), and their quite lucrative investment in Akamai is a strong statement of their commitment to be a leader in streaming media.

On the other hand, Apple's direct pursuit of the MP3 market has been weak. QuickTime isn't the best MP3 player around, either in terms of playback quality or features (although the QuickTime 4.1 update improves this somewhat), QuickTime doesn't do MP3 encoding out of the box, and their Movie Player doesn't receive, nor does their QuickTime Streaming Server produce, MP3 audio streams in the popular SHOUTcast format. So what's going on?

There are a couple of ways to read the situation. One is that Apple is merely steering clear of the craze-its momentum is centered in the Windows community, there are legal issues with the distribution of MP3s and copyright violations, and there are licensing fees required for encoders. While this may be true, it's only half of the story. Like many of Apple's winning strategies, this one may center around a single revelation, both obvious and at the same time completely overlooked: the MP3 format is irrelevant. Not digital audio, but the idea that the consumer cares at all about the format of their files, or even what "MP3" stands for. (For the record, it's "MPEG-1 Audio Layer III," not "MPEG 3," which doesn't exist.) What they really care about is quality. The QuickTime Star Wars trailer taught us that-although it was available in a variety of sizes, almost everyone chose the largest, highest quality version, and you can bet that most of them were pulling these multiple megabytes painfully over a modem. The truth is that there are better audio formats than MP3 out there, both in terms of file size and sound quality. (This is of course subjective, but many have high praise for the QDesign Music 2 format, which tends to be used for the audio track of high-quality QuickTime movies.)

This is just speculation, of course, but moving forward consumers will certainly choose to listen to whatever sounds best, and this is also what artists will want to produce. Does this mean that MP3 will vanish as a format? Of course not. What it does mean is that consumers will be best served by products which are codec agnostic, and can adapt to play a variety of formats. Some of the newer MP3 hardware players are supposed to support upgrades to play future formats, and of course QuickTime has always supported multiple formats, because it's a completely modular technology; third parties can easily produce their own compressor and decompressor components. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if some day we have a portable QuickTime player, supporting video as well as audio.

So what does this all mean to the Macintosh developer today? It means that in the short term Apple has provided an opportunity for developers to step in and fill a need. In the long term, it means that the Macintosh can take the lead in the digital audio arena. If you are doing anything in the MP3 arena today, you'd be wise to use QuickTime. If you write your own encoder or decoder, implement it as a QuickTime component, and if you license one, favor one that is implemented this way. Automatically, you'll be able to support other formats that QuickTime currently plays and formats that it will play tomorrow, and you'll be able to extend its capabilities without rewriting the application itself. This will give Macintosh applications (and Windows applications which embrace Apple technologies) a unique ability to keep apace with changes in the industry.

This month I am going to leave you will a relatively small set of links to some key resources. First off is Apple's QuickTime developer site, which contains the key resources you'll need to integrate QuickTime into your products. Second is Fraunhofer, who for better or worse holds patents to key algorithms involved in MP3 compression, and they are enforcing their rights to licensing fees. They have a web page (or a place holder for one) devoted to licensing, and you'll want to acquaint yourself with the issues involved. On a positive note, they do have arguably the highest-quality encoder available, and their place as an originator of the technology shows. They also have a few pages of introductory information about the format. Next on your list should be the MPEG Audio News, a small site which tracks news relevant to the Macintosh, and has several interesting articles, including an introduction to MPEG audio, a review of the QDesign Music codec, an encoder quality comparison, and an interview with Rafael Luebbert, the author of the historic MPecker encoder. For a look at the other formats out there, Terran's Codec Central page has information on a variety of multimedia formats, and the SoundApp site contains a page with a brief explanation of the many formats supported by this application.

Apple - Developer – QuickTime
Fraunhofer IIS-A - Licensing
Fraunhofer IIS-A - Layer-3 Info
MPEG Audio News
Codec Central - Info on Multimedia Codecs and Technologies
SoundApp Formats

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out icecast. It's an open source streaming audio server launched in January of 1999, and it streams MP3 audio in a format compatible with SHOUTcast, the distributed streaming audio system by Nullsoft, makers of the popular Winamp MP3 player for Windows. Since Apple's Darwin Streaming Server is open source as well, one wonders if some enterprising developer will unify the two technologies. Icecast is under the GNU Public License, so there may be a licensing mismatch there, but that doesn't prevent one from enhancing the Darwin Streaming Server to serve icecast-compatible streams without actually using code from icecast (after all, it was developed without the code to SHOUTcast). After all, we can't let the Linux DJs have all the fun.

Apple - Public Source - Darwin Streaming Server


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