By Richard Menta 11/6/07
To some digitally savvy folk the CD is just old technology, which to them is synonymous with obsolete. But obsolescence is not always clear cut, because it is tied to how you define what constitutes obsolete. Don't tell audiophiles and hip hop DJs that the vinyl LP is obsolete, for they'll give you a myriad of reasons why that format, which was developed at my alma mater Bell Laboratories way back in the late 1920's, is better.
Is the CD obsolete? Not really. It is sonically superior to digital downloads, which by definition strip out information to compress files for easy storage and online delivery. The CD is also ubiquitous in the American household, with each home possessing several devices, including DVD players and PCs, which can play it. In contrast, many homes have yet to acquire that first digital audio portable.
But digital downloads offer a most desirable advantage where the very compactness of each track allows a user to cart a collection of thousands of tunes in a device smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Digital downloads also offer another great advantage in that it makes it so easy to share music with others, an important consumer cultural habit that has been a staple of recorded music since the days of reel-to-reel tape and wire recorders. The audio quality of lossy digital downloads may be inferior to CDs, but the sound is good enough for many consumers. It's this concept of good enough that is the real force driving the shift to MP3 files, because it is a trade-off users are willing to make for the conveniences just mentioned.
What has also hurt the CD has been the continued effort by the major labels to "lock down" the format with ill-advised digital rights management schemes. This has only made the format less appealing to consumers, particularly when it prevented them from playing a so encumbered CD on their PC or older CD player. The Sony rootkit fiasco, where that company actually utilized malware to facilitate this lock down, demonstrated to consumers how the CD could cause damage to equipment. The lesson some consumers took from this was to fear the CD, not exactly a hit marketing idea. The rootkit scandal endowed the CD with a new competitive disadvantage, reason not to trust in an otherwise innocuous format.
The irony is that major labels, who have so invested their revenue models on the CD may the formats worse enemy. The inability of the major labels to embrace the technological shifts that have so changed the ways we discover and acquire music have made them appear behind the times. The acrimony generated by their attempts to contain this change only made matters worse. That the CD is the format of choice of the major labels makes it an anachronism by association in the eyes of consumers who view the concept of a big record label itself as an anachronism.
The demise of the CD is premature, though its popularity is clearly waning. Sure it's an invention of the 80's, but so is the MP3 codec, which continues on the rise. Like the LP, existing CD collections will linger on for decades, which brings up another competitive advantage of the CD over digital downloads in terms of its better - though still limited - archival ability. Will Windows play MP3 files in 2025?
For a while there it looked like the MP3 codec would be supplanted by more modern codecs, but the inability of the forces to be to settle on one competing standard (Apple chose proprietary ACC, Sony proprietary ATRAC, Napster chose PlaysforSure, Real chose Real, gamers and the digital hard core chose Ogg and LAME) that it only cemented MP3 as the default codec for the average consumer. Still, the MP3 codec is pushing 30 years.
Is the MP3 codec obsolete? Ask me in 2025, because I might tell you no.
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