Ok, it might look like I have some sort of vendetta against Apple these days. Maybe I do. More realistically, though, is that I've been studying the limitations in things like corporate control of "standards", patents, licenses, and royalties, and thinking about how all of this affects the way I work and live today, as well as in 20 years from today.
Let's start with compressed music formats. I'd been mulling the idea of converting my entire music library - somewhere in the 120gb range, spread across multiple devices and computers - into OGG format. Evidently, I only regularly listen to about 2% of that over the span of any given month. Almost all of it is in MP3 format right now, with the occasional AAC, WMA file tossed in. Also, I make a point to only download the OGG version of a podcast (though I listen to precious few podcasts) when it's available.
Is OGG "better" than MP3? I'm not going to touch that one with a 10-foot pole. Although I consider myself an "audiophile" and "videophile" - meaning I can (annoyingly) hear / see the difference between compression rates or between "normal" and "upscaled" DVDs for it to bother me - all of the audio codecs I've used have proven to be quite good (well, good enough for me anyways) in terms of sound reproduction when used to encode at higher bitrates. And if you objectively read through some of the myriad comparisons of "mp3 vs ogg vs aac vs wma vs..." on the web, you'll find that they stack up more or less equally to each other, with the loudest differences being heard from the fanboys of each format1
It comes back down to philosophy. Contrary to what many people believe, mp3 is not free. It's licensed and patented, and these patents are actively enforced.
Thomson Consumer Electronics controls licensing of the MPEG-1/2 Layer 3 patents in many countries, including the United States, Japan, Canada and EU countries. Thomson has been actively enforcing these patents. Thomson has been granted software patents in EU countries and by the European Patent Office, but it is unclear whether they would be enforced by courts there.
In September 1998, the Fraunhofer Institute sent a letter to several developers of MP3 software stating that a license was required to "distribute and/or sell decoders and/or encoders". The letter claimed that unlicensed products "infringe the patent rights of Fraunhofer and THOMSON. To make, sell and/or distribute products using the [MPEG Layer-3] standard and thus our patents, you need to obtain a license under these patents from us."
These patent issues significantly slowed the development of unlicensed MP3 software and led to increased focus on creating and popularizing alternatives such as WMA and Ogg Vorbis. Microsoft, the makers of the Windows operating system, chose to move away from MP3 to their own proprietary Windows Media formats to avoid the licensing issues associated with the patents. Until the key patents expire, unlicensed encoders and players appear to be illegal in countries that recognize those patents.2
Now, lots of people I know couldn't care less about this. Not being "lots of people I know", however, I'm more than slightly concerned about such an important and widespread digital technology being firmly controlled and manipulated by a single entity. Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of open source, I have a choice. I've always maintained that true freedom lies in the ability to make one's own choices... though that's slightly outside of the scope of this post.
The Ogg Vorbis specification is in the public domain. It is completely free for commercial or noncommercial use. That means that commercial developers may independently write Ogg Vorbis software which is compatible with the specification for no charge and without restrictions of any kind.3
What does that mean, directly, to me? That means that I'm free to convert my audio from any source into this format, without having to pay royalties for doing do. When you buy any mp3-capable device, portable or otherwise, rest assured that any licensing costs paid by the manufacturer are passed on to you, dear customer. It's one of the obvious reasons why portable audio players have evolved so little in the past 4 years (I'd love someone to explain to me the functional difference between a 2nd-gen ipod and today's ipod... asides from fashion, of course).
Despite this, we all keep flocking to Apple and their iPod. It's the cool thing to do. It's fashionable, it's got a decent (but not the greatest) interface for navigating your music library, and hey, everybody else has one, so why not?
Well, for one, I don't like it anymore because it's an iPod. It's really as simple as that. I don't want to be "different" or "unique", but I also don't feel a need to assimilate into a sub-culture permanently immersed in their make-believe musical world on the bus, subway, waiting in line, etc. I have a profound love for music. I listen to workout, to focus when I'm working or studying, and whenever I go out or drive. But not all the time. And no longer thanks to companies like Apple or Thomson that want to control the strings to my music collection.
Will I buy another portable audio player? Probably, but not right now. There are tons of cheaper, better music players that support the OGG format4. Maybe I'll wait for my birthday next month, and see if anyone catches on... :p