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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Origins of MP3

Business Week is running an article on "How MP3 Was Born". It's a pretty concise view of how compression standards have evolved, if a bit light on the technical details. For more of that you can always try Wikipedia's MP3 overview, which looks pretty complete, with all the links you could possibly want.

In my day job I work on video compression software, so I have a little different take on how the various standards have evolved. It's kind of like making sausage, or it would be if nobody agreed on what should go into the sausage or how it should be prepared.

It all starts with the Motion Pictures Experts Group (MPEG), which is the organization of all the industry players, university researchers, and government bodies that come together to iron out the standards for how digital video and audio is implemented worldwide. Naturally, each group has its own agenda, and they do their best to ensure that their agenda works its way into the standard one way or another. After endless arguing, technical evaluation, testing, and more arguing, they eventually produce a "standard", which contains the specification for every type of sausage that may ever be produced by anyone for all eternity, or until the next revision of the standard. Meanwhile, companies with deep pockets have already been pushing their own proprietary sausages, and they claim that theirs is the finest sausage ever made. What's amazing is that anything ever gets accomplished at all.

The upshot for manufacturers is that they end up having to support several standards, which is sort of like having to learn to speak 8 languages fluently. Otherwise, they're screwed, and a lot of times they're screwed anyway.

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