MP3 declared dead as patent licensing expires, AAC to succeed

MP3 is the file format that changed the whole world beyond the music industry. It eventually affected the entire entertainment industry, gave Apple a new mandate when PCs were conquering the computing world, and made digital the media to beat. But now its creators are saying that it is dead. That, however, is really only a technicality and a legality because MP3s will undoubtedly live one for years to come, even when better alternatives are around.

MP3, short for MPEG-2 Audio Layer III (not MPEG-3) saw its first release in 1993. Through ups and downs, the format has become the de facto standard in digital music. But while famous, it hasn't been a big money maker of late, at least not for its creators from the Fraunhofer Institute. MP3 has, in recent years, subsisted on patent licensing.

As of April 23 this year, however, that is no longer the case. Fraunhofer has terminated its licensing program for some of the patents used in MP3, thereby allowing them to expire. In its stead, the institute is pushing forward AAC, which it also helped developed, as the next de facto standard for the digital music industry.

In reality, AAC has been around for years but it has so far not yet displaced the ever popular MP3. AAC is admittedly a better format, developed with the hindsight unavailable to MP3's developers and without the severe limitations of those decades. MP3, however, remains the most used format despite its quuality issues, partly because of its file size and partly because of the software ecosystem that has grown around it. It might become even more popular when those patents expire.

That said, MP3 is indeed on its way out, albeit at a slower pace than AAC proponents would perhaps like. The popularity of music streaming and the demand for higher quality audio, even on mobile devices, require the use of better formats with better algorithms and features. So while its creators pulled the plug on it, MP3 isn't going down without one last fight.