RIP to the MP3

The creators of the game-changing format have terminated their licence...

RIP to the MP3

Picture by: David Cheskin/PA Archive/PA Images

If MiniDisc players already being seen as relics from a bygone age made you feel old, brace yourself: the MP3 era is officially over.

The file type that infuriated Metallica and made Napster's name at the turn of the century, ushering in the new dawn of file-sharing, the iPod and the end of the music industry as we know it, has taken a major step towards irrelevance this week.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the Munich-based group who invented and patented the MPEG Layer III (MP3) encoding algorithm, has opted to end its licensing programme for format-related patents after two decades in use.

The institute is turning instead to "more efficient audio codecs" such as the iTunes-favoured AAC format, for which it also owns the patent.

A MP3 successor, MPEG-H, also promises efficient storage and immersive 3D audio.

For now, the effect of Fraunhofer's termination is more symbolic than anything – nothing, of course, is going to actually happen to the MP3s you have saved on your hard drive or smartphone.

Picture by: Chris Radburn/PA Archive/PA Images

With music lovers increasingly opting not to store their tunes whatsoever and heading for streaming services for their aural fix (or vinyl when they want to get properly physical), the decision to give up on a format long surpassed in terms of quality and power is understandable.

Fraunhofer officials explained in a statement:

"Most state-of-the-art media services such as streaming or TV and radio broadcasting use modern ISO-MPEG codecs such as the AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) family or in the future MPEG-H. Those can deliver more features and a higher audio quality at much lower bitrates compared to MP3.”

Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the London launch of iTunes in Europe, 2004. Picture by: Myung Jung Kim/PA Archive/PA Images

Development on the MP3 began in the late '80s but it was not until the arrival of Apple's first generation iPod in 2001 that the format met with mass appeal.

It made the dream Steve Jobs had of storing your entire music collection in one handheld device possible by essentially making songs take up 10 times less digital space than they had previously.  

Writing in 1999, Macworld introduced its tech-savvy readers to its benefits thusly in 1999:

"Using the [MP3] encoding algorithm, you can compress a 34MB raw sound file to a 3MB MP3 file, which makes storing and playing back huge song collections on your Mac entirely possible.

"This amazing file squeeze does come at a cost: you need a reasonably fast Power Mac to play MP3s and while MP3 files are promoted as "CD-quality," some quality is lost in the compression process."

And the first song ever committed to MP3?

Karlheinz Brandenburg of the Fraunhofer Society told the now-defunct Business 2.0 of his experiments with what has since become known as "The Mother of the MP3":

"I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm... somewhere down the corridor, a radio was playing 'Tom's Diner'. I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice."

He later said in a 2009 SVT documentary on the song's history:

"I was finishing my PhD thesis, and then I was reading some hi-fi magazine and found that they had used this song to test loudspeakers. I said 'OK, let's test what this song does to my sound system, to MP3'.

"And the result was, at bit rates where everything else sounded quite nice, Suzanne Vega's voice sounded horrible."