Vorbis, Microsoft and Apple

Vorbis, Microsoft and Apple

Robbert Haarman

2010-12-11


Introduction

Vorbis is a high-quality, public domain, royalty free audio compression codec. Various listening tests indicate that Vorbis offers superior audio quality to its main competitors (MP3, WMA and AAC). MP3, WMA, and AAC require licensing fees to be paid. Files in AAC or WMA format also often come with usage restrictions (DRM). It would seem that Vorbis has all the advantages for users and player manufacturers: better audio quality, no restrictions on use, and no licensing costs. However, in all the years that Vorbis has been around, it has never found mainstream acceptance. In this essay, I argue that this is because of anti-competitive efforts by Apple and Microsoft, both being major operating system vendors pushing their own proprietary audio formats.


MP3

When the first MP3 players for PCs appeared in the 1990s, they marked the start of a revolution. MP3 allowed recordings of songs to be compressed down to about one megabyte per minute while retaining decent audio quality. This made it feasible to store a music collection on ones computer, and to exchange music over the Internet. In the late 1990s, portable audio players supporting MP3 started appearing on the market.

Almost all desktop operating systems ship with software that can play MP3s (notable exceptions are Fedora Core and Ubuntu). All portable audio players I know support MP3. It also seems to be the format of choice for downloading music from the Internet.


Vorbis

MP3 is covered by patents. In September 1998, the Fraunhofer Society announced that anyone developing encoders or decoders for MP3 would have to secure a licence. Shortly thereafter, work was started on a codec free of patent and licensing issues: Vorbis.

Vorbis soon gained popularity with Open Source enthusiasts, due to its open nature, and the fact that the reference implementation was being developed as open source software. Free from the restrictions of MP3, and with a number of knowledgeable people working on it, Vorbis soon overtook MP3 in terms of audio quality.

Vorbis is supported by a growing number of portable audio players, but this excludes some of the most popular ones (e.g. Apple's iPod). Most popular software players support it, including the ones packaged with most popular Linux distributions, but not Windows Media Player (Microsoft's player, which is shipped with Microsoft Windows) and iTunes (Apple's player, which is shipped with Mac OS X). Some online stores sell music in Ogg Vorbis format, but most don't. Wikipedia uses Vorbis for its sound samples.


AAC

Although AAC has been declared an international standard by the Moving Pictures Expert Group, AAC is commonly used to refer to the type of files that Apple sells through the iTunes Music Store, which are technically AAC streams embedded in a proprietary DRM technology called FairPlay. Listening tests indicate that AAC provides better quality than MP3, but not as good as Vorbis.

When Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003, it sparked another revolution in the digital music world, selling more than a million songs in the first 5 days after its opening. By the end of February 2006, over a billion songs had been sold through the store.

Songs purchased through iTunes Music Store can be played using Apple's iTunes music player (included in Mac OS X and available as a free download for Microsoft Windows), and on Apple's iPod portable audio players. Many mobile phones also support AAC playback. Most other software and hardware players don't support AAC, or support only AAC without FairPlay DRM. Only a few online stores sell music in AAC format. Despite the limited support for AAC, the popularity of iTunes and the iPod make AAC use very widespread.


WMA

Six months after the launch of the iTunes music store, Napster 2.0 debuted and started selling music in Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. WMA is a proprietary compressed audio format developed by Microsoft. It supports both lossless (compressed file produces the same waveform as the original) and lossy (compressed file sounds similar to the original, as in MP3, Vorbis, and AAC) compression. Independent listening tests indicate that WMA provides better audio quality than MP3 at low bitrates, and is about equal to MP3 at higher bitrates.

WMA is often used in combination with DRM to create audio files with usage restrictions. Both WMA and the DRM technologies that are commonly used with it must be licensed from Microsoft.

Many online music stores sell WMA files. Usually, these stores sell audio only in WMA format, and with DRM restrictions. Most media players for Windows support WMA, through code Microsoft ships with the Windows operating system. Players on other operating systems usually don't support WMA, although there are players that use an unlicensed, reverse-engineered WMA decoding library. A growing number of hardware players for WMA files exists.


Which is Best?

So, which format is best? That depends, first of all, on who it should be best for. I'll discuss it from the perspective of users (who want to listen to music), player manufacturers (who want to manufacture players that users buy), online stores (who want to sell music to users), Apple, and Microsoft.

Users

For users, the most important thing is that they can actually play the music. That depends on their players supporting the format the music is in (interoperability), as well as the absence of DRM restrictions (freedom). Second place to the ability to play music comes the quality of the audio.

In terms of interoperability, MP3 comes out first. Both software players and hardware players for the format are ubiquitous, and players that don't support it are practically non-existant. None of the other formats comes close. Vorbis can be played by most software players, but not the commonly used Windows Media Player from Microsoft or iTunes from Apple (although plugins that allow the playback of Vorbis audio exist for both). The number of devices that can play Vorbis is large and growing, but it's nowhere near as large as the number of devices that support MP3, and, again, the most popular players (notably the iPod from Apple), don't have Vorbis support. WMA is restricted to licensed players; the number of these is growing, but Apple's popular iPod is not among them, and software players outside Windows are rare. Players that support AAC with Apple's FairPlay DRM are particularly rare.

Besides the formats that one can play, it also matters what formats one can obtain. This issue is softened somewhat by being able to convert between audio formats, but it's still more convenient when one can buy music in a format that can immediately be used with the players (hardware and software) that one has. Here, most stores sell either MP3 or WMA, but the most popular one (iTunes Music Store) sells AAC. Some stores that sell MP3 also sell Vorbis.

In terms of sound quality, Vorbis would be the best choice, followed by AAC, WMA, and MP3. Having said that, few people really appreciate the differences in quality at bitrates of 128 Kbps and higher (these being the most commonly used bitrates).

On the whole, it seems that MP3 is still the most attractive format for users: it will work with all players you have, you can download MP3s from many sources, and although it's audio quality is the worst of all 4 formats, it's still good enough.

Of the more modern formats, Vorbis would seem to be the most attractive: software that plays it is available for all operating systems, there are no DRM restrictions, and it offers the best audio quality. Hardware players are neither very common nor very rare, and the same is true of stores that sell it. Both AAC and WMA do worse than Vorbis in most of these aspects: (licensed) software players exist only for Windows and OS X, DRM restrictions limit what you can do with the music you paid for, and audio quality is inferior to Vorbis.

Player Manufacturers

Player manufacturers want to sell the players that they make, and so they must cater to the wishes of users. So in some sense, the format that is the best choice for users is the best choice for player manufacturers. This puts them in the interesting position that interoperability is their main requirement (as it is for users), but, at the same time, it's the manufacturers themselves who enable this interoperability. So, the best choice would be to support all formats.

Enter licensing fees. When a hardware manufacturer wants to support one of the proprietary formats (MP3, AAC, WMA) in their players, they will have to pay to the owner of that format. Supporting all these formats will increase the cost of the player, and thus eat into the profits of the manufacturer.

As far as licensing fees are concerned, Vorbis is the clear winner: there are no licensing fees for Vorbis. Implementations of Vorbis decoders in software and hardware are also freely available. The only cost to adding Vorbis support is the extra hardware needed to store the decoder, making Vorbis the cheapest of all. As a bonus, it also offers the best audio quality.

MP3 has licensing costs, but paying them is a no-brainer: the number of customers you gain by adding MP3 support more than makes up for them.

For WMA, the picture is less clear; there are definitely people who wouldn't want to buy a player that didn't support WMA, but there are also plenty of people who don't care about WMA support.

As for AAC, Apple seems unwilling to license FairPlay, so that no manufacturer can legally incorporate the ability to play DRM-protected AAC files.

Online Stores

Stores, like hardware manufacturers, have interests that coincide with those of users, because catering to users' interests brings them more sales, and thus, more profit. Thus, interoperability and sound quality matter to stores. Also like manufacturers, stores may have to pay licensing fees.

As before, MP3 is the clear winner as far as interoperability is concerned, and Vorbis the clear winner when it comes to licensing fees (none), and audio quality. Thus, it would make sense for stores to prefer these formats. WMA and AAC have less to get excited about: interoperability isn't as good, and licensing fees apply.

Another consideration for stores is that they must sell music that users want to buy, which means that they must obtain music from somewhere. There is another license issue there. The owners of the music stores sell may or may not charge a fee, and may or may not actually allow the store to sell the music at all. In particular, the proprietors of the music may refuse to license it to the store, unless the store only sells it in some DRM-enabled format.

It turns out almost all music stores that sell mainstream music sell it only as DRM-protected WMA files. The main exceptions are iTunes music store (which sells DRM-protected AAC) and AllOfMP3 (which is based in Russia, and presumably managed to strike a deal that would be difficult to obtain in many other countries). When stores are not restricted by the record labels (i.e. when they sell independent music), they sell MP3 and sometimes Vorbis music.

Apple

Apple is currently king of the digital music hill. They run the most popular online store (iTunes Music Store), they make the most popular portable player (iPod), and they make one of the most popular software players (iTunes). All of these use the AAC format, with Apple's own FairPlay DRM. They are also virtually the only products that support this format.

Where other parties have strong incentives to enable interoperability, Apple has a strong incentive to not do so. Right now, the iTunes Music Store and the iPod go together: the best quality music you can get for the iPod comes from ITMS, and the iPod is the only portable player that can play it. If the iPod supported WMA, there would be plenty of places besides ITMS to get music for it, so ITMS would lose sales. If ITMS sold files playable on players other than the iPod, people might switch to other players. As long as the iTunes music store and the iPod remain as popular as they are, Apple will comfortably sit on its throne and refuse to license FairPlay, secure in the knowledge that the customers will keep on coming.

Microsoft

Contrary to Apple, Microsoft does not run a very popular online music store, nor do they make a portable audio player, let alone the world's most popular one. However, they do make the world's most commonly used operating system (Windows), and the media player that it includes (Windows Media Player).

Microsoft makes money from the digital music business by collecting license fees on their proprietary WMA format and associated DRM technology. To get as many parties as possible to license WMA, they will have to make WMA more attractive than other formats somehow. They do this by making Windows able to play WMA, but not Vorbis and AAC, out of the box. Thus, if you want to give users an audio file that they can play without hassle, you have two choices: pay license fees to Fraunhofer and use MP3 (which Windows Media Player also supports), or pay license fees to Microsoft and use WMA. In the former case, you get somewhat better interopability, in the latter case, you get somewhat better audio quality.

Somehow, WMA has been successful enough that the manufacturers of portable players have started to adopt it as well. This is good for Microsoft: they get to collect license fees, and WMA becomes more interoperable. This, in turn, will make it more attractive for users, and more users means a more valueable (license fees!) format.


The Vorbis Perspective

If we look at where Vorbis goes in all of this, we see that it has a number of advantages over the other formats:

  • Vorbis offers superior audio quality (better than MP3, AAC, and WMA)
  • Vorbis is not encumbered by patents or license fees (unlike MP3, AAC, and WMA)
  • Vorbis does not limit the usage of music (unlike WMA and AAC)
  • Vorbis implementations are freely available (both in software and in hardware)

Sounds like Vorbis is the way to go: it's the best, and it costs you nothing. So, everybody is using Vorbis, right? Well, no. And it's not that everybody is still using MP3. But when people aren't using MP3, they aren't using Vorbis instead…they're using AAC or WMA. Here's why:

  • Apple has a vested interest in AAC/FairPlay, which competes with Vorbis
  • Microsoft has a vested interest in WMA, which competes with Vorbis
  • Apple and Microsoft don't support Vorbis in the players they ship with their operating system
  • Therefore, users have to install extra software to play Vorbis files
  • A lot of users can't be bothered — why use Vorbis if AAC or WMA is easier?
  • About 95% of all desktop computers and laptops run either Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OS X
  • The most po pular portable player, Apple's iPod doesn't play Vorbis
  • All in all, lots of people are using one of a few players, and these happen to be ones that don't support Vorbis
  • Hence, few people would buy Vorbis audio
  • Therefore, stores won't go out of their ways to sell Vorbis audio
  • If nobody has Vorbis files anyway, hardware manufacturers don't have a strong incentive to support it in their players

There's a cause and effect chain here that runs back to Apple and Microsoft not including Vorbis support in their players. They are almost alone in this: there are plenty of players from other parties that do support Vorbis. As it happens, Apple and Microsoft are also pushing proprietary formats that compete with Vorbis. It's far from unreasonable to suppose that the lack of support for Vorbis is related to that.


What You Can Do

I hope I've managed to get the message accross that Vorbis is the best audio format, and that Apple and Microsoft are not acting in the best interests of users, player manufacturers, and online stores. So what can you do to remedy the situation?

First of all, spread the word. There's not a lot of public awareness about these issues. A lot of people only know that the music that they get plays with the media player that was installed on their computer when they got it, and aren't aware that this music may be in a format that limits their usage of it, locks them into proprietary technology, and provides sub-par audio quality. Once people are aware of these issues, at least they can make an informed decission.

Secondly, don't support the companies that are locking you into their proprietary formats. Don't buy music in AAC/FairPlay or WMA format. Don't buy players that don't support Vorbis. You would be creating problems for yourself: you would never be able to switch to a player that wasn't endorsed by Apple or Microsoft (or, if you have both AAC and WMA music, it would have to be endorsed by Apple and Microsoft), because it wouldn't play your music. Also, you would actually be rewarding the anti-competitive behavior — even if you don't pay directly to Microsoft or Apple, license fees will be paid for the sales made to you.

Thirdly, use Vorbis! It's free for everyone to do with as they please, it provides the best sound quality, players for it are available, and so is music in Vorbis format. All it takes is looking beyond what Apple and Microsoft want you to use. Other people have made the switch; if they can do it, so can you!


References

Although the conjectures in this essay are my own, a lot of the facts have been obtained from external sources. Below are some of the sites I have consulted for information.