Monday December 28, 2009

The decade definers!

Posted by Karthik

As we near the end of another decade, more than listing the top XX songs/ soundtracks/ films of the decade, I’d like to highlight 2 relatively unsung things that have enabled ground-breaking changes in the way we perceive entertainment – the file formats (and the technologies behind) MP3 and Xvid. Despite Apple’s iconic iPod and the AAC format it uses, it is the MP3 format that truly revolutionized music, created a market for individual tracks as against bundled albums and gave access to music to people around the world like no other technology ever before.

Xvid, on the other hand, did the same with movies – a majority of films proliferating online via torrents are in the Xvid format. This compression standard, in a way, has democratized access to films unlike any other controlled/ patented/ proprietary technology before it. Unfortunately, much of the news about these 2 compression standards are dedicated to the rampant piracy that they’ve allegedly enabled. It’s a bizarre accusation in reality – when these formats arrived, even before this decade began – it was available to anyone to create a business model out of.

But the big moneybags who ruled the audio and video distribution business were complacent enough to assume that their current business models were safe. So, when people found an alternate way to share – yes, the last decade was really the ‘share decade’, not so much the ‘search’ or ‘social’ decade; we shared everything from our music, movies, photos to updates on what we were doing! – on their own, they merely cried wolf and tried to rein in that part of the free jamboree. Too late, things were already in motion with the spread of the internet and there was nothing the big guns could do, but cry over a missed opportunity.

Models like that of emusic and Amazon’s downloads still give me hope. I’ve never been a fan of the iPod – I sure admire the device but hate the iTunes interface. It may be extraordinarily convenient to search, access and purchase music off iTunes, but I do not appreciate the fact that what I buy is not completely mine for any kind of use in a way I deem fit…unless of course, I use a software other than iTunes and extract the tracks out of the device.

For video, there were a lot of rivals – windows media video and quicktime, to name just two. But none have matched the balance of quality and versatility of Xvid.

One of the persistent criticisms against these formats is that they have significantly lowered the acceptable quality in audio and video formats – this is true to some extent, but for all practical purposes, in my opinion, the quality deterioration is not discernible and is perfectly functional. If it was really that bad, my contention is that they wouldn’t have gained such widespread popularity – they not only created new legions of music/ movie followers, but also converted many existing legacy format users.

Hats off to these 2 compression formats – they have rewritten every single rule in the entertainment distribution business and made obsolete many established and time-tested models. It’s a pity that very few people saw the potential they offered. Hope they inspire more balanced and consumer centric distribution methods in the coming decade, maybe on their own, or through their variants.

Note: Not DivX, the propreitary format – I meant the GNU licensed Xvid. Thanks to a comment by curriceaurora for pointing this out.

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