Digital music format shakeout continues; AAC strengthens claim as standard

“Owners of Apple’s popular iPod are finding that music encoded in the format, or codec, known as WMA, for Windows Media Audio by Microsoft, will not play on the iPod, which performs best with music encoded with a format called AAC, for Advanced Audio Coding,” Michel Marriott writes for TechNewsWorld.

“The codec confusion needs to get resolved before we see dramatic changes in the market, said Van Baker, vice president of GartnerG2, a research service from Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut.
The variety, and the difficulty of choosing, may only increase in the short term. On Tuesday, Apple unveiled a smaller iPod called the iPod Mini, and digital-music announcements by other manufacturers are planned over the next few days at the Consumer Electronics Show, a major trade event in Las Vegas,” Marriott writes.

“Hyder Rabbani, president and chief operating officer at Archos, a maker of portable digital storage devices and music players, compares today’s digital audio environment to the dawn of the cellular telephone industry, when there was a confounding mix of competing systems and formats.
It stalled the entire adoption of the industry, Rabbani said, noting that many consumers waited until the formats shook out to a dominant few before they bought a cellphone. There’s a similar challenge today,” Marriott writes. “In addition to the hardware, a dizzying array of software is required to manage digital music, including the formats used for storage and playback. For starters, there are MP3, MP3 Pro, WMA, AAC and a format called Atrac that is used almost exclusively by Sony. Each format has its advantages and peculiarities, and not all players read all formats.”

“At the big DataVision Computer Video store in Manhattan, personal digital audio players were one of best-sellers of the holiday season, said John Griffin, the store’s sales manager, and iPods were clearly the players of choice. For every one of the other players we sold, people bought 70 to 80 iPods, Griffin said recently as shoppers ogled a store display of more than 50 different models of players ranging in size from cigarette lighters to small jewelry boxes,” Marriott writes.

Full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: The format shakeout will continue, but if we were to bet, we’d be betting on AAC/Fairplay. That’s the format served up by the market-dominating Apple iTunes Music Store and also the format the leading digital music player, Apple’s iPod, uses (along with MP3 (up to 320 kbps), MP3 Variable Bit Rate (VBR) and WAV). In addition, the announcement that HP will rebrand Apple’s iPod and the upcoming Apple/Pepsi 100 million song promotion will futher cement AAC/Fairplay as the defacto legit digital music format.


  1. I hope in the upcoming Pepsi/Apple commercials that AAC is mentioned to be superior. It needs a push and this would be an opportunity to throw this fact in and get some recognition. Also in the iPod commercials…Apple, take a few extra seconds and mention AAC.

  2. I don’t think it’s necessary to mention that. The general public doesn’t care which format music is in. All they care about is that it will work with their computer and their iPod. I don’t think Apple needs to play up AAC to the public at all, that will take care of itself with all of the HP and Compaq systems with iTunes and all of the iPods sold. At worst, AAC/Fairplay has a commanding lead in the digital music format war. At best, the HP alliance and Pepsi promo have already all but sealed victory in this war.

  3. I think the fact that we never saw WMA dominate P2P shows it will likely never be the defacto standard in legal music sales (similar to how MP3 has become the defacto standard in P2P.) In other words, the majority of P2P users are running Windows and never embraced WMA as they did MP3 (even with the ability to encode WMA already on their machines by default.) This bodes well for AAC. Thanks in part to P2P, most users don’t automatically think “Windows Media” when they think about digital music. If Apple keeps turning up the heat with the iTMS as they have been thus far, there’s no question in my mind that AAC/FairPlay could easily dominate. But, I do agree that it’ll take quite a while for the “winner” to be clear.

  4. Telling the unwashed masses about AAC would simply increase the steady stream of drool seeping out of the corner of their mouths. They would have no idea what the hell “AAC” means and they wouldn’t care. As it should be.

    Screw the format wars. Let’s get beyond this Beta vs VHS phase and dispatch of WMA as quickly and quietly as possible. Let it die the same silent death as M$’s Ultimate TV – and the same death that is about to come to the “Media Center” PCs and Tablets.

  5. AAC should to win out, simply b/c it’s the successor of MP3 (like others have said, most people don’t care about their codec, so we should’ve been calling it audio MP4 this whole time). Also, WMA is from one company and not a community. Unfortunately, I think that WMA and AAC will both hold out and finish in a tie, just b/c MS wont give up and AAC (audio MP4) wont go anywhere. Oh well, we’ll see.

  6. I have yet to see evidence that anything but an iPod will play AAC/Fairplay. There are several devices that play AAC, but don’t claim to decrypt iTMS files. Real’s AAC files use a different encryption. So does the new O2 service. The real shakeout should be with the security measures, not just the sound format.

    It’s still good to see AAC being adopted, but it doesn’t really address the fears of Joe Consumer. He wants his iTMS purchases any more flexible. Even if he has no intention of buying a different player–still…would you build CD collection that could only be played on Sony walkmans? What if the next-gen Tivo is AAC compatible but FairPlay ignorant?

    On the other hand, if every device decodes FairPlay, then piracy will be much easier. It wouldn’t surprise me if Apple is contractually restricted from licensing FairPlay for a certain period. It’s something the music labels might have demanded.

  7. ” For every one of the other players we sold, people bought 70 to 80 iPod”
    As for the people receiving the other players as a gift, it must be like the little girls who received a dollar store imitation Barbie.

  8. I don’t think that it would hurt to mention AAC/Fairplay during the commercials – not push it, but make it familiar to people in association with the iPod. It might also be in Apple’s interest to explicitly state that the iPod also supports MP3 and WAV, two familiar sound formats that will create a sense of comfort to many potential buyers, even if they end up using AAC exclusively. Many people still strongly associate the MP3 format with portable digital music.

  9. It seems to me too that the security measures are what the discussion should be about. As for the music format itself, WMA is propriety from Microsoft and AAC is an open standard. So in this there should be no discussion on TRUE customer choices, the open standard is the way to go.
    On the DRM-side, WMA has its own propiety DRM, and Apple licensed Fairplay (from Verisign if I remember correctly), which is also propiety. There’s the culprit. There is no free standard DRM (as far as I know, but maybe there is?).

    But suppose (for the sake of discussion on judging how ‘open’ Apple would be with music formats) that WMA is a free standard. Then, would an iPod play a WMA/Fairplay file? Or would Apple actively block it, not because of DRM but because of music format? In which case, and only in this case, an accusation of restricting customers options would bear some merit.
    And (less theoreticly) does a WMC device play a non DRM restricted AAC file? Which would say something about MS and ‘all about choice’.

    True choice comes only with free open standards, giving the customer the choice to buy whatever hardware, operating system or software they want, all the while staying master of their digital data. Clearly, Apple is to a large extend on this road. With WMA, MS is moving hard in the opposite direction, with only illusional choices for their customers.

  10. I’m sure all mac fanatics will give extra consideration to an HP product the next time they need a new printer or other item HP has in retail stores. They certainly deserve our appreciation after the daring decision announced to partner with Apple. They certainly were “thinking differently” in deciding to pre-install iTunes and its iTunes Music Store with it’s superior open standards AAC file format on all of their consumer pc’s. Microsoft’s proprietary closed format Windows Media files just don’t sound as clean and near cd quality as AAC files do. Now, hp pc buyers will be able to compare both sound files on their computers and decide for themselves what format they want to build their music libraries with.
    hp wanted to provide the best digital music experience for their customers, and AAC provides that. Bravo Hewlett Packard!

  11. Being Apple, they’ll use the soft-sell. Talking specs is a PC approach used by Dell, Gateway, HP, etc.

    I think the simplest way to push the market towards AAC, is to just call it MP4. That simple change would allow anyone who uses MP3 to quickly make the association that this is the next version of mpeg audio. No fuss, no muss. They’ll just get it. Using the AAC name, just breaks the link between MP3 and MP4. Anyhow, that’s what I think they should do.

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