So, here we are. Free formats, Open Media. Fine words, fine words, but what do they mean to you?
Perhaps not much yet, but hear me out.
Those words mean HD-quality video. They mean high quality music at small file sizes. They mean office files that work everywhere, no matter the system. They mean playlists that you can actually share. And more importantly: they mean freedom from corporation locks.
Yes… corporations. They want to lock your files, your media. Try to backup a DVD film of yours. Oh, that’s right, it doesn’t work. That’s how many of them maintain their software monopoly and their hold on the gadget market. At the cost of the freedom of their customers. Your freedom.
Wouldn’t you rather support companies that won’t take that freedom away? That can only happen if you use free formats, so the companies are forced by demand to sell open media and players that work with free formats. Don’t you wish to be free to use your media anywhere you want? Maybe you heard of DRM already, but that is only the tip of the iceberg of non-free formats.
A much bigger concern is that non-free formats either belong to a company who will not allow them to be used anywhere but in their own products, or said company demands that everyone pays a license to use those formats. For instance, when you buy a DVD film you are paying not only for the already over-priced content, but also for the license to use it. Here’s another anedocte: perhaps you remember the original Xbox. Although it had a DVD drive like a certain other competitor, unlike it, the Xbox could not play DVD films. Microsoft avoided paying such license by forcing its consumers to buy an expensive remote control to cover the license fees. That’s certainly not how you serve your consumers. And let me not even get started on MP3. Ask Microsoft how they feel about paying billions in damages to Alcatel-Lucent so that people may continue to use a format that sounds like VHS audio.
Non-free formats are of the interest of no one but the people who own patents on them. The freedom to spare the money to pay for unnecessary licenses should not be taken lightly.
Still not convinced? Audio CDs have arguably become out of fashion with the turn of the century, so a few have moved to the next distribution method: online stores for digital music. Now, imagine. There’s this guy, he’s just a bloke struggling to make a good service out of representing musicians and gain a commission while at it. He’s the middle man. But since he has not yet become filthy rich, it turns out he can’t pay all the licenses required to sell music in non-free formats, and he knows he can’t just sell them in free formats, because people don’t know they should use free formats or just don’t care. So he either gives up or goes illegal and prays nobody notices.
You — yes you — can avoid this. All you gotta do is use free formats like Vorbis (.ogg) and FLAC for music, instead of MP3 and whatever they try to promote as its successor. Or use Theora (.ogv) for video.
Still not convinced? Okay, back to the subject of freedom and liberty. The concept of Open Media is one that means two things: freedom in the use of the chosen format for any and whatever reason (only possible when you deal with free formats) and freedom to use the content for any and whatever reason (only possible when the content is made available under a free license). To achieve Open Media, a special kind of nirvana to some, a useful tool to others, these two battles to free content must be fought. Free formats and free licenses. And Open Media is only one step for the betterment of humanity.
Does it sound like some hippy bullshit? It’s not. It’s about leaving a better world for the next generations.
Well, but is it about quality as well as it is about the freedom? Hell yeah.
Public tests show that Vorbis is far superior to MP3 and other more modern lossy formats like Musepack and AAC. Classic, Pop, Rock, any kind of music! And it has multi-channel support! DJs know the power of Vorbis and, thanks to Ogg’s streaming capabilities, so do online radio owners.
On the speech front nothing beats Speex. It’s powerful, scalable and people use it in such different areas as podcasts, VoIP, audio books, and talking robots. Record a sample of your voice and compare the quality and the file size between a Speex and an MP3 file. The result is staggering. Not only is the Speex file way smaller, it sounds better!
And in the lossless audio front, FLAC is unbeatable. Good compression, low CPU overhead and — blasphemy! — it works on portable players. It’s everyone’s favorite choice for archiving music digitally. Metallica uses FLAC and so should you.
That covers audio, but what about video? The future will likely hold Dirac, but right now you have Theora. In its early years, Theora has suffered from bad support in tools, which made it look as if it had bad quality. Nothing could be farther from truth. Theora rivals most MPEG-4 formats, it beats Xvid, and it’s ready to provide the world with video for everyone for the next five or more years until something better comes along. And that at a fraction of CPU power used by its rivals. Theora’s performance makes it the ideal choice for video in low-powered devices like the XO laptop from the OLPC project or mobile phones. It is that good.
What if you wanted to share audio or video with your friends? Why, you would have XSPF for that. It is the one playlist format that gets it right. No, seriously. Try compare it with any other. It is no wonder multimedia applications like VLC are using it internally. It’s simple, it’s pratical, and it does everything one may want from a playlist and more.
We talked about the stuff you and I use, but what about the niche markets? The stuff only a few use? Are you wondering about your graphic designer friend? Then fret not. Until recently, graphic designers were forced to use proprietary formats to work with vector graphics. Now? Now they have SVG, a browser-compatible, scriptable and cool format. Your friend can use it for both simple drawings and complex applications. How complex, you ask? Well, let’s mix SVG, Theora and bit of scripting and you get this. Pretty cool, uh?
The formats are here, but they can’t make the decision for you. It’s you who must decide if you want Open Media or not. Make the world a better place. Support freedom, support quality. Use Open Media, use free formats.