|Tuesday, April 10, 2007
11:14 - Lock washer
John Gruber has a nice piece a-sploding a few myths about the AAC format that seem to be gaining currency.
AAC is not “unique” to Apple. It’s not even controlled or invented by Apple, or any other single company. It is an ISO standard that was invented by engineers at Dolby, working with companies like Fraunhofer, Sony, AT&T, and Nokia. Licensing is controlled by Via. For up to 400,000 units per year, AAC playback costs $1.00 per unit; for more than 400,000 units per year, the price drops to $0.74 per unit.
In terms of licensing costs, patents, and openness, AAC is very much comparable to MP3. MP3 does have the advantage of near-ubiquitous support in consumer electronics and software; AAC has the advantage of slightly better audio quality at the same encoding bitrate. Additionally, MP3 requires a royalty fee of 2 percent for “electronic music distribution”, AAC requires no royalty fee for distribution.
Gruber's purpose in writing the article is to put paid to FUD about AAC in general; he doesn't, however, really address the question of DRM'd AAC (using FairPlay), which is an Apple-specific implementation. I feel I ought to point out, in case it looks like an omission, that the reason why he isn't addressing this is clear if you've read his previous missives on the subject: the people who bark about FairPlay being a "lock-in" feature for Apple and the iPod always seem to miss the fact that you're perfectly free to rip your CDs to MP3 or unprotected AAC and put those on your iPod; nothing in the iTunes/iPod universe requires you to ever, ever touch FairPlay if you don't want to.
He makes this point:
The ideal scenario would be for a genuinely open and free file format such as Ogg Vorbis to supplant MP3 as the de facto world standard. No patents, no licensing fees, a documented file format, open source libraries for encoding and decoding. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards, however. In the real world, major corporations only seem comfortable with multimedia formats backed by other large corporations.
Which does make sense, notwithstanding our usual snarkiness about Ogg Vorbis; the idea of it is sound, it just isn't going to catch on if it hasn't already. And Apple isn't going to bother with it if nobody uses it. Still, as recent DRM-free developments have highlighted, and knowing that even Apple has to pay license fees to use AAC, you can bet that they'd standardize on Ogg Vorbis—or an equivalent—in a heartbeat if it were to become popular outside the hardcore geek community.
But until that happens, they're likely to want to stick with a format that's backed by an independent licensing body with whom Apple can negotiate and remediate. That's just how business is done—it's the same reason why enterprises still roll out Windows mail and web servers even though they could do the same stuff for "free" with Linux. It's not because they're stupid; it's because they know why I put quotes around "free" in the previous sentence.
Another case in point, which came up in e-mail following from comments on a previous post, is Apple's chosen video format for importing into iTunes. Why MPEG-4 instead of DivX? They don't appear to be much different in playback quality to most users' eyes, and DivX seems a lot more widespread. iTunes won't import videos in formats that aren't natively supported by QuickTime, even if you have a plugin installed; but leaving aside that limitation, why not standardize on DivX? Why create a new format?
Just reading those two links ought to tell you all you need to know about that particular decision. Worth pointing out in the process is that a) Apple did not invent MPEG-4; and b) MPEG-4 predates and is a basis for DivX. But the real lesson is that whereas MPEG-4 is a series of structured standards developed by independent bodies and corporations such as IBM to whom patent and license fees must be paid, DivX is more like a backyard rocket made of chicken wire and aluminum siding and stolen North Korean engines. Its history is full of reverse-engineering, spyware scandals, rogue competitors, and a general intangible feeling that using this format makes one a DVD pirate. True, you'll find DivX certification logos on all kinds of DVD players these days; but looking at the prospects of the two formats and who's backing each, it seems clear that real MPEG-4 is the way the wind is blowing, and Apple would do better to support it—even if it's no more "theirs" than DivX is, and even if Apple is falling afoul of some of the MPEG-4 authorities for not paying enough license fees.
(Another thing is that DivX apparently doesn't make provision for DRM.)
Apple isn't making up the rules as it goes along, is the bottom line. As Gruber notes:
Let’s imagine for one paragraph that Microsoft’s and Apple’s digital music positions were flipped: that it was Microsoft that shipped the world-changing Zune in 2001, that they had sold 100 million Zunes to date, and that Microsoft’s online music store had 85 percent market share for legal downloads — all of them protected by Microsoft’s proprietary DRM. Can you imagine, in this scenario, Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates publishing an open letter like Jobs’s “Thoughts on Music”? Can you imagine Microsoft volunteering to switch from DRM-protected songs to an unprotected industry standard file format?
. . .
Apple is not the “Microsoft of digital music”, and everyone ought to stop trying to view their actions as though they were. Alas, that’s too much to hope for, and so in the meantime, now that Apple has proven its commitment to DRM-free music downloads, keep your eye out for anti-AAC propaganda from those pushing an anti-iTunes or anti-Apple agenda.
Which isn't to say they haven't done things that can be criticized. But there's no need to accuse them of doing what they've been so careful to avoid being accused of.
UPDATE: Geez, can we maybe not go overboard? Criminy.
UPDATE: A followup:
A bunch of readers emailed with a suggestion I hadn’t considered before: that the confusion over whether AAC is an “Apple format” is in some measure a byproduct of the format’s acronym, and that many people assume that one of the A’s in “AAC” stands for “Apple”. (It stands for “Advanced Audio Coding”.) If it were called, say, “MP4” instead, it might be more clear that it’s the successor to MP3.
UPDATE: Joe Bezdek, one of the co-founders of DivX, Inc., speaks out in the comments.