Why do I have 20 GB of Ogg Vorbis files on my computer? Or perhaps the question is, why to I still have 20 GB of Ogg Vorbis files on my computer?
Ogg Vorbis is an audio compression format. Think MP3, but then think open, non-proprietary, patent-and-royalty-free. Oh, and also think quality. Now you are beginning to think about Ogg Vorbis.
I first started using Ogg Vorbis back in 2004. I wanted to purchase a personal music player for my wife for our anniversary. I was concerned about using a proprietary format such as MP3. Largely this was because I was working for OSS Watch at the time. I was learning so much about free and open source software and open standards that I wanted to put some of what I learned into practice in my personal life. Since Ogg Vorbis was the leader amongst the efforts to provide a high-quality non-proprietary codec I went with it. I was also delighted to find that iRiver, at least back in those days, had a substantial player, the iRiver H140, that supported Ogg Vorbis natively. Anniversary gift solved!
One thing leads to another and three years later I find myself with more than 20GB of Ogg Vorbis files on our main desktop computer at home. If I tell you that I generated all of these from cds we own, you will get some idea of the size of our cd collection. Music is important in our lives – all forms of music: folk, rock, jazz, classical, opera, instrumental and more. As soon as we buy a new cd, I rip and encode it as Ogg Vorbis files, for backup and for use on our various players.
For myself, I’m happy with a 1GB player on which I store a selection of my favourites suitable for running or for sitting on a bus. My wife does the same thing for running, but on the bus she likes to have everything available to her: absolutely everything. Hence the value of the 40GB iRiver player she has been using. I should say also that we have always been happy with the quality of the music we get out of our personal music devices. So no complaints there.
So, everything should be fine. Why then am I wondering about that decision I made a number of years ago?
Two things. First, I need to replace that iRiver player. Alas the hardware was not as reliable as the software. And there is no doubt that the cool gadgets for music these days are Apple’s iPods. Players, even the hard disc ones, have got much smaller and sleeker. I would like to get something cool for my wife. Second, I no longer work for OSS Watch. So I don’t have the same impedus, perhaps, to support so-called marginal codecs even if they are non-proprietary. Or do I?
I know that I could just buy an iPod and install Rockbox on it in order to play Ogg Vorbis files. But I just can’t convince myself that buying a new iPod and then immediately wiping its operating system is a clever move.
So what should I do? Should I abandon what I started some years ago and switch to the better supported MP3 format? Or another way of putting that: is there still a reason for me to be using Ogg Vorbis (now that I no longer work for OSS Watch)?
It’s that last question that has me thinking. In essence it amounts to a question about what the significance is of free and and open source software and open standards in an ordinary person’s life. By ordinary person, I just mean someone who isn’t directly connected to the business of free and open source software or open standards (of course those people are also ordinary folk, it’s just that they have special interests/reasons in this area). Is there a reason to choose an open standard or open source, even if it entails a bit of extra bother (like not being able to use the latest cool gadget, or needing to search around a bit to find compatible hardware, etc.)?
I think there is.
It is a question of principle and conviction, a question of deciding who you are and why. Curiously it is not a question of technology, except to the extent to which I want to be in charge of my technological choices rather than have the market decide for me.
Note that this is not the hypothetical question I often ask people. I usually ask, if two software products equally met technical and user requirements but one was proprietary and the other was open source, which would you choose? That question is about whether there are aspects of open source that might be decisive in an otherwise technologically neutral choice situation. The question above, however, is about whether even in a non-neutral situation, it might be rational to choose the open source or open standard option.
I think this is the point where, as we used to say when I was younger, the personal becomes political. My personal choices are political.
And that too has me thinking. Thinking about what kind of a political being I have become and where this will lead. But I also think this is a question I am going to be returning to again and again over the next few years. It seems to me that there is a good reason to use open source software or open non-proprietary standards even if that choice, in some cases, means I get marginalised.