When Open-Source Wins


Q. I’ve been shopping around for an MP3 player, and I read that one thing I should consider is whether the gizmo can play Ogg Vorbis files. Pardon my ignorance, but what in tarnation is an Ogg Vorbis file, and why should I care in the slightest?

A. Ogg Vorbis is a compression format akin to MP3, except it’s, like, way better. For starters, it packs a lot more audio enjoyment into fewer bits, meaning you can cram more high-quality songs onto your player. More importantly, it’s open-source and unpatented, so musicians needn’t pay a royalty when they distribute an OGG file. The downer’s that too few players can rock OGGs, though the situation’s getting brighter.

The Ogg Vorbis story traces back to 1998, when the company that holds the MP3 patent started charging developers for the privilege of using the format. That was real bad news for music pros who were just beginning to discover the joys of digital distribution, especially small record labels.

So a group of open-source developers, led by one Christopher Montgomery, started working on Ogg Vorbis as an MP3 alternative, releasing its first effort in 2002. Like all open-source projects, Ogg Vorbis is still very much a work in progress, as developers around the globe tweak the code to improve performance. (If you’re a real brain, you can try pitching in by downloading a developer’s kit from

Among the earliest adopters of Ogg Vorbis have been video game companies such as Epic Games (of Unreal Tournament fame). Record labels that post samples on their websites are also taking to the format, as are DJs who make their mixes freely available. When you’re already charging zero for your work product, royalties of even a cent or two per song can send you spiraling into the red.

As if the fiscal advantage weren’t enough to recommend Ogg Vorbis, it also one-ups MP3 on performance. In April, Extreme Tech ( did a very thorough comparison of the top four audio codecs: Windows Media Audio, Ogg Vorbis, AAC, and MP3. The reams of test results are too complex to fully discuss in this space, but suffice it to say that Ogg Vorbis was the top performer at 64 kilobits per second. That means it’s ideal for Flash-based players, for which storage space is at a premium.

Ogg Vorbis’s big minus at the moment is that you can’t play its files on an iPod, nor on such popular hard-drive players as the Dell Digital Jukebox. The good news is that a few top-of-the-line players are now Ogg Vorbis-friendly: Check out the Rio Karma ( on the hard-drive side and the Jens of Sweden MP-130 ( if you’d prefer a Flash player.

As for playing Ogg Vorbis files on your PC, you can do so with Winamp (, a freeware media player. A complete list of OGG-compatible software can be found at, along with links to all the encoding and decoding tools you’d ever want. And, yes, you can find out what’s up with that strange name. Mr. Roboto won’t ruin the surprise.

Porn for progress

For committed anti-Bushites, the tragedy of being a New York resident is that your vote doesn’t really count. How else to pitch in for the Democratic cause? Perhaps by buying a copy of the Porn for Kerry DVD (, described on the website as “part political satire and part hardcore hot sex!” (Their exclamation point, natch.) Mr. Roboto can’t verify whether it’s true that 100 percent of the profits will go to the Kerry-Edwards campaign. But you’ve got to give some love to the twisted mind that conjured up a hot-tub scene between “Jorge Bush” and his “personal squad of sex minions.”

Mama media

Want a seriously depressing wake-up call regarding media consolidation? Then slide on over to, created by the Center for Public Integrity. Simply pound in your zip code and learn who pulls the information strings in your neighborhood. Mr. Roboto was skeeved to find out what a big role Viacom plays in his everyday life.