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So much for a universal music file standard

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 7, 2008
(Issue 2610, Out in the Woods on the Internets)

The recent decision by Toshiba to drop support for its HD DVD format, conceding the high-def video disc format to Sony's Blu-Ray, prompts the observation that standards convergence isn't universal.

While in the retail arena, both consumers and merchants seem to prefer having one format in each niche – VHS over Betamax in videotape, or cassettes over 8-track in audio tape, Blu-Ray over HD DVD – that's not necessarily proving to be true in the online world.

Case in point: digital audio files.

In the late 1990s, the Real Audio file format was the de fact standard for online downloads and streaming. Far more compact that uncompressed .wav files, and supported by the free Real player (a plugin for your Web browser as well as a standalone software music player), RealAudio files had the field to themselves for a year or so.

But once Microsoft, Apple and others realized that there was potential money to be made in (first) online "radio" and (then) selling music digitally, both companies trotted out their own compressed audio file formats (Windows Media and Quicktime, respectively). AT&T had its own standard for awhile (a2b), as did Sony.

As if all those different formats (which all created music files that could only be played back in their respective music players, either hardware or software) weren't enough, when Apple launched its iPod digital music players and the associated iTunes music store, it introduced yet another proprietary music format.

Yet, excepting only the ubiquitous iTunes/iPod juggernaut, the open-source public domain MP3 format was the most popular of the compressed music formats & and every one of the music players supporting the various proprietary formats could also play MP3s.

Until very recently (when Amazon launched their digital music store to complement their traditional CD sales), when you went to and decided to listen to a 30-second sample of a song from a CD you were thinking about buying, Windows Media hadn't replaced the RealMedia format – it had just joined it. On most CDs, you could listen to song clips in Real, Windows Media or MP3.

In the past few weeks, though, Amazon has now dropped Real Media and Windows Media clips in favor of MP3s – mostly because in response to iTunes (and, to a lesser extent, the Microsoft's online Urge store), Amazon is selling its digital music in MP3 format. If iTunes songs can only be played on iPods, MP3s can be played on any brand of digital music player.

For now, at least in online music, variety remains the spice of life.

Jim Trageser can be reached at