Top five ways MP3 has changed the world

The MP3 format is officially 10 years old. Even though most people still don't know what it stands for, its influence has been far reaching indeed, altering more than simply the ways people get their music. Top five ways MP3 has changed the world
1. Making music vanish into thin air
2. Bringing the major labels online
3. Speeding up the Internet, enriching the Web
4. Giving bands a platform
5. Shifting power from Sony to Apple
Bonus: Honorable mentions

Happy birthday, MP3. Ten years ago last week, a guy named Jürgen Zeller sent out an e-mail to the rest of the team at Fraunhofer Gesellshaft, announcing that an internal poll had unanimously declared .mp3 to be the new official file extension of the audio format the company had been working on since the '80s. In the years to come, their invention changed the music business, the Internet, and -- by extension -- the world forever. Here's my list of the top five ways MP3 has changed the world.

Making music vanish into thin air
The most important thing MP3 did was to usher in the final format for all media: pure digital. Music is no longer tied to physical objects. Sure, if MP3 hadn't come along when it did, some other codec would have become the standard for the burgeoning digital music scene. And yes, I know that in some ways, the CD can be considered a digital format, and it predated MP3. But that doesn't change the fact that the engineers at Fraunhofer were the first to invent an algorithm that makes a good compromise between file size and sound quality -- the properties that enabled music to be zipped around the Internet without sounding like it was coming through a tin can with a string attached to the back. Maybe that's why it still remains the de facto term for referring to digital music, such as Kleenex for tissue, Xerox for copier machines, and in some cases, even iPod for MP3 player.
Bringing the major labels online
When MP3 playback software started to go mainstream in the late '90s (for hard-core techies, that is), music fans worldwide suddenly had a digital lingua franca for music. I could rip a CD to MP3 in California, and you could download and play it in Sri Lanka, thanks to the MP3 standard. If music fans hadn't figured out a way to use the Internet to trade music online, it would have taken the record labels years, or perhaps even decades, before they would have started selling music over the Internet. Large-scale piracy by "average" consumers told the music industry in no uncertain terms that folks were ready to acquire music online -- legally or otherwise. The labels were forced to react, and there are now a variety of legitimate online music stores to choose from that offer music from labels large and small alike.

The faster connection speeds brought about in part by the MP3 format enabled Web designers to insert video into Web pages, among other things. In this video, I demonstrate the world's first wireless iPod headphones.
Play See It First watch video
Speeding up the Internet, enriching the Web
I'd be willing to wager that at least 30 percent of broadband upgrades from 1999 to 2004 were due in part, or wholly, to MP3s. Although high-speed Internet connections improve Web surfing considerably, it's not enough for most people to justify spending the extra dough. When the original Napster suddenly allowed people to download thousands of songs for free (remember, this was before there were legitimate digital music sources), upgrading to broadband suddenly added up to a significant savings. This effect reached beyond music since connection speeds and the Web have a "chicken and egg" relationship. Once people upgraded to broadband, Web designers could pack more text, images, and multimedia onto Web pages since more people had the fast connections they required. Aside from rich page design, broadband upgrades also enabled other high-bandwidth applications, such as the Internet phone services that use VoIP, flash animation, streaming video, online gaming, and so on. This would have happened without MP3, but with it, the transformation happened much more quickly.
Giving bands a platform
We're all used to being able to hear music samples at band URLs and larger sites such as MP3.com, so it's easy to forget that if someone wanted to replicate that process 10 years ago, he or she would have had to convince you to dub a tape and send it through the mail for free. As a musician, you would have certainly ignored this request, unless it came from someone with label control or another form of clout. Today, people sample music millions of times every day, and no one has to do much work in order for that to happen, thanks mainly to the MP3 codec. We're all the better for it, although certain elite hipsters probably wish they were still the only ones who'd ever heard Hatebeak.
Shifting power from Sony to Apple
Apple's iPod became the digital music world's first mass-market success for many reasons. I certainly count the iPod's and iTunes' support for regular old MP3 files among them. Before either product even ran on Windows, both offered full support for the MP3 codec. Sony, on the other hand, wasted years marketing MP3 players that, well, didn't play MP3s. Instead, they played files secured by Sony's copyright protection technology. Consumers voted with their dollars and snapped up Apple's iPod in droves while largely ignoring Sony's offerings. Sony learned its lesson and now offers MP3 support in all of its players -- but the damage was already done. For now, Apple controls the digital music market, especially the portable sector that Sony's electronics division used to own, thanks to its popular Walkman line. The consumer electronics and recording industries have given tech companies a seat at the bargaining table after seeing what an outsider such as Apple managed to achieve with the MP3 format.
Honorable mentions
  • Feeding peer-to-peer networks
    So-called P2P networks started out as a method for trading MP3s online, but they have evolved far past that. Today, the technology is used by game developers and other companies that are looking to reduce their bandwidth costs, and it's evolving to do much more.


  • Driving a hardware sales boom
    In the same way demand for MP3s stoked demand for broadband connections (number three above), it also encouraged the purchase of countless hard drives, CD burners, and audio peripherals for computers. One almost wonders whether these profits exceeded the money lost by the labels to digital piracy (hmmmm...).


  • Inspiring countless repetitions of the same headline
    This one's admittedly a bit snarky, but I can't resist, since I feel like I've been reading these stories for as long as the MP3 format has been around. The resemblance of MP3 to MTV inspired hundreds -- or even thousands -- of journalists and bloggers to use the headline "I want my MP3" over the past 10 years. I think that horse is about as dead as the digital music revolution is alive.

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