The year was 2001. Steve Jobs took the stage in a small auditorium at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino and introduced one of the defining objects of a decade to the world. And, along with the introduction of iPod, came the burst of a format whose name turned to a product segment yes, I'm talking about the ubquo MP3 (MPEG-2 Audio Layer III).
Sixteen years later, the world is a very different place from the one that first witnessed the functioning of a Click Wheel. IPods, while still selling more for the honor of the firm than any other reason, have been completely supplanted by smartphones and streaming. MP3 is good, MP3 is still in people's memory as a reminder of a simpler time (or less simple, at least in the sense of finding the music you wanted to hear on the internet, does anyone miss LimeWire?), But as a format, things are a little more complicated.
I say this because the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, institute that owns the patent rights related to the format and that received royalties of all companies that wanted to adopt MP3 in their products, announced at the end of last week via NPR that is no longer licensing your product. MP3 is dead, long live MP3, they said.
In fact, although many vehicles have reported the story as such over the weekend, this is not the case. What the institute forgot to mention in its announcement is that the last of the patents related to the MP3 that it held recently expired, that is, legally they can no longer charge royalties by using the format. In other words, no, MP3 is not dead it has only essentially passed into the public domain. But what does this mean for real changes in our lives?
Well, in practice, any manufacturer who wants to support the format in their products will no longer have to pay for it to anyone. On the other hand, MP3 no longer enjoys the popularity that it had 15 years ago, not even Apple itself did not stay long with the format, making the transition to AAC on iPods in 2003. Today, the Advanced Audio Coding the preferred format for compressed audio reproduction (for lossless reproduction, FLAC is still the champion) and is basically used by all audio services streaming around the world including Apple Music.
That is, the entry of MP3 in the public domain will not make much difference in our lives, and those who reported his death last weekend forgot to mention that, in fact, his death occurred slowly, out of the public eye, over the past decade. So, unless you are planning to create a revolutionary device for playing MP3 files (and, if you are, let me say that you are about 16 years late), the game normally follows.