Getting Wired: The wizards of Ogg versus MP3

RealNetworks' Helix project spreads support for the Ogg Vorbis compression standard.

RealNetworks' Helix project spreads support for the Ogg Vorbis compression standard.

Last week I expressed doubts about the long-term benefit to RealNetworks of its Helix project, which is making some of its code available as open source. But that does not mean the move is not significant. Indeed, it has already had one result that could have important longer-term implications.

For as the press release explains, the forthcoming Helix DNA Client - the software that sits on the user's computer - will now come with the Ogg Vorbis audio codec as standard. That is, anyone who uses a player based on the Helix client will automatically have support for the Ogg Vorbis compression standard.

This is important because hitherto Ogg Vorbis has been an interesting free software project to come up with a non-proprietary, open, patent and royalty-free alternative to the MP3 standard, but one with little hope of achieving much market share. Thanks to Helix, though, there will be potentially millions of players that support the Ogg Vorbis standard, which will make it much more popular with musicians, for example, who are looking for an encoding format.

Ogg Vorbis is a creation of the Foundation. More about the organisation and the name can be found online. With fine timing, the Ogg Vorbis project has just released version 1.0 of its software. Ogg Vorbis also has its own home page, a FAQ and an interesting demo page8 that allows you to compare the quality of Ogg Vorbis 1.0 with that of other encoding technologies such as MP3 and Microsoft's Windows Media Audio.

There are already a number of tools available for all the major platforms: Windows, GNU/Linux and Unix, and the Apple Macintosh.

Ogg Vorbis is part of a broader multimedia suite of open standards. There is also Theora, a multimedia project that combines the Ogg Vorbis audio codec with the open source VP3 video codec from On2 Technologies. There is a press release about the partnership and a Theora FAQ.

As the FAQ points out, since Theora will be entirely royalty-free, it possesses a key advantage over the new MPeg-4 standard, which for all its technological advances is still hamstrung by a costly licensing scheme.

Not content with these major projects, is also working in a number of other areas. For example, its Icecast software is an open source audio streaming solution that is compatible with the similar Shoutcast software from the creators of the hugely popular Winamp player (which also supports Ogg Vorbis now - another indication of the growing support for this standard). There is more about Icecast and a FAQ.

Other projects include Paranoia, an open source CD ripper for GNU/Linux - see the FAQ - and the Moaning Goat Meter. Despite the latter's splendid name, it is the Ogg Vorbis project that is likely to have the most impact on computing, particularly in the broader context of the burgeoning world of open source software.

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