The end of MP3? Opus Audio Codec promises better sound with less bandwidth

 Opus chart

Did you know there was such a thing as an Internet Engineering Task Force?  Turns out, there’s a “large open international community of network designers, vendors, and researchers,” whose mission is to organize, codify, research and document evolving standards for online applications.  And this week, they approved the Opus Interactive Audio Codec as a new standard for online audio, in a move that may improve the sound of everything from streaming radio to VoIP calls, even as it lowers prices.

The Opus codec was developed by a consortium of researchers from Mozilla, Xiph.org, Skype, Microsoft, and Broadcomm. Previous audio codecs have been optimized for specific uses – MP3 for music, SILK for voice, and so on –– but Opus promises better sound for everything, no matter how low your bitrate.  Opus switches between different codecs based on how much bandwidth it detects, so it can reduce latency and drop-outs on any connection.

Even more exciting than how Opus works is how it’s been developed.  Although plenty of patents have been filed around the technology, all the companies involved in Opus have committed to making the codec royalty-free, with an open-source code base. 

The commitment to an open-source implementation isn’t just hippie good vibes. While MP3 has made a lot of downloaders happy, it’s a patented codec, and anyone who uses it has to pay a licensing fee to the patent-holders.  That means anyone who wants to build an MP3 distributor, an MP3 player, or even a game that uses MP3 to stream its audio can’t make free software, because they’re in hock to the rights-holder as soon as their program is used. If you’ve ever wondered why Apple got into the audio-codec business with AAC, this is a big part of the answer; few companies hate seeing money leave the building like Apple. 

Christopher Blizzard, who’s worked in development at Mozilla, Red Hat, and Facebook, embraces the open-source ideal. “You can still build a Web browser, spider, client, Web server, image editor, a JS library, a CSS library, an HTML editor, a Web publishing system, commerce system – anything that is based on fundamental web technologies – without asking anyone for permission… This is why we’ve had billions of dollars of investment and a fundamental shift in the way that western society acts and communicates – all in the course of a very short period of time. The Web grew up on Royalty-Free.”  So the fact that the most popular audio and video codecs are licensed has a lot to do with the clumsy, thudding progress of online video and audio, including the fact that we still can’t have streaming video on a website without going through a host like YouTube.

Opus won’t solve that problem overnight, but it promises a way forward.  The codec’s slick rebuffering means its first implementation will be plugin-free voice and video chat directly through a Web browser. Firefox supports native playback of Opus files, and Google is working on implementing it in Chrome. And of course, Skype is enthusiastically rolling the codec into the next version of its software. Expect to hear better sound for less money in future browsers, phone apps, and desktop software as the codec freely gives itself to anyone who asks.

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