David A. Wheeler's Blog

Thu, 02 Oct 2008

Play Ogg (Vorbis and Theora)!

The good news: There’s lots of digital audio and video available through the Internet (some free, some pay-for). The bad news: Lots of audio and video is locked up in formats that aren’t open standards. This makes it impractical for people to use them on arbitrary devices, shift the media between devices, and so on. This hurts product developers too; they’ve become vulnerable to massive lawsuits. Even though the MPEG standards are ratified by ISO and are often used - MP3 is particularly common for audio - they are not open standards. In particular, they are subject to a raft of patents, which prevent arbitrary use (e.g., by free-libre / open source software). Things are even worse if you use a format with DRM (aka “Digital Restrictions Management”). DRM tries to arbitrarily restrict how you can use the media you’ve paid for; when the company decides to abandon support for that DRM format, you’ve effectively lost all the money you spent on the audio and video media (examples of DRM abandonment include Microsoft’s MSN Music, Microsoft’s PlaysForSure which is not supported by Microsoft Zune, Yahoo! Music Store, and Walmart’s DRM-encumbered music).

Thankfully, there’s a solution, and that’s Ogg (as maintained by the Xiph.org foundation). Ogg is a “container format” that can contain audio, video, and related material. Audio and video can be encoded inside Ogg using one of several encodings, but usually audio is encoded with “Vorbis” and video is encoded with “Theora”. For perfect sound reproduction, you can use “FLAC” instead of Vorbis (but for most circumstances, Vorbis is the better choice).

I encourage you to use Ogg, and I’m not the only one. Wikipedia requires that audio and video be in Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora format (respectively); according to Alexa, Wikipedia is the 8th most popular website in the U.S. (as of Oct 2, 2008). The Free Software Foundation (FSF)’s “Play Ogg” campaign is encouraging the use of Ogg, too. Xiph.org’s 2007 press release and about Xiph explain some of the reasons for preferring Ogg.

So, please seek out and create Ogg files! Their file extensions are easily recognized: “.ogg” (Ogg Vorbis sound), “.oga” (Ogg audio using other codecs like FLAC), and “.ogv” (Ogg video, typically Theora plus Vorbis). If you need to download software to play Ogg files, FSF Ogg’s “how” page or Xiph.org’s home page will explain how to download and install software to play Ogg files (they’re free, in all senses!). Many video players can play Ogg already; among them, VLC (from VideoLAN) is often recommended as a player.

Probably the big news is that the next version of Mozilla’s Firefox will include Ogg - built in! So soon, you can just install Firefox, and you’ll have Ogg support. That should encourage even more use of Ogg, because there will be so many more people who have Ogg (or can get install it easily), as well as lots of reasons to install such software.

If you want more technical details, you can see the Wikipedia article on Ogg. You can also see Internet standard RFC 5334, which discusses the basic file extensions and MIME types, as well as pointing to other technical documents.

Currently there is a babel of formats out there, and most of the more common ones are not open standards. I have no illusions that this babel will instantly disappear, with everyone using Ogg by tomorrow. Getting a new audio or video format used is a difficult chicken-and-egg problem: People don’t want to release audio or video until everyone can play them, and people don’t want to install format players until there’s something to play.

But with Wikipedia, Firefox, and many others all working to encourage the Ogg format, I think the chicken-and-egg problem has been overcome. I’m now discovering all sorts of organizations support Ogg, such as Metavid, (who provide video footage from the U.S. Congress in Ogg Theora format). Groklaw interviewed Richard Hulse of Radio New Zealand, who explained why they recently added support for Ogg Vorbis. Many other radio stations support Ogg; I’ve confirmed support by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) (Radio feeds 1 and 2), WPCE, and WBUR (Xiph.org has a much longer list of stations supporting Ogg). Ogg is widely used in games; there’s Ogg support in the engines for Doom 3, Unreal Tournament 2004, Halo: Combat Evolved, Myst IV: Revelation, Serious Sam: The Second Encounter, Lineage 2, Vendetta Online, and the Grand Theft Auto engines (Xiph.org has a longer list of games). In short, there are now enough Ogg players, and Ogg media, to get the ball rolling.

In particular: Don’t buy a portable audio (music) player unless it can play Ogg Vorbis. Xiph has a list of audio players that support Ogg Vorbis (read the details for the player you’re considering!). If a manufacturer doesn’t support Ogg, complain to them until they fix the problem.

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