Today in Apple history: Revolutionary MP3 format gets its name


The MP3 made the iPod possible.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

July 14 Today in Apple history July 14, 1995: The MP3 file format receives its official name as the new .bit file extension gets changed to .mp3. The technology allows compression of a standard CD .wav file to one-tenth its original size, courtesy of some smart algorithms.

The format will revolutionize the music industry — and put Apple on the road to world-conquering dominance.

A thousand songs in your pocket

The MP3 enables easy sharing of music tracks online and makes music more portable than ever. Apple’s iPod will become the world’s best-known MP3 player, quickly capitalizing on the new format.

The MP3 gave people the ability to, as Apple would later phrase it, “put a thousand songs in your pocket.” MP3 was a significant advance — and it all came down to the file size.

While it might not sound like much in today’s world of broadband connectivity, reducing song file sizes from 32MB to 3MB proved massive in the mid-1990s.

At the time, the bitrate of a typical modem was just 28.8k or 56k. That meant that a 32MB file would take literally hours to download. With significantly smaller hard disks than today, it also meant you’d struggle to hold much more than an album or two on a typical computer. (For example, the Power Mac 7100, which many Apple owners would be using in 1995, came with a hard drive ranging from 250MB to 700MB in size.)

How MP3 made file sizes smaller

The genius of MP3 was finding a way to encode data using inexact approximations and partial data discarding to reduce the file size of an audio track, without sounding noticeably worse than uncompressed audio.

The first MP3 encoder was called I3enc, created by the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits. (The institute held onto ownership of the MP3 format until this year.)

It didn’t take long before portable MP3 players started popping up. However, it wasn’t until October 2001, after Steve Jobs returned to Apple and took over as CEO, that the iPod arrived on the scene. With more capacity for holding MP3s than rival products, and the ease of iTunes, the device put Apple on the path to its current status as a technological powerhouse.

And none of it would have happened without the MP3.

What was the first MP3 you downloaded?

Do you remember the first MP3 you ever downloaded? Leave your comments below.

  • bIg hIlL

    I jumped on MP3 as soon as. I had a CD MP3 player which was great, over 20 albums on 1 disc. I recorded and encoded a lot of stuff at the time, as internet was still dial-up and not a really feasible option for much more than simply looking at websites and reading. Oh, and trawling about looking for that essential app or device driver that MS did not include in their Windows OS. When Apple launched their MP3 player, there was already a marketplace full of other devices so it was just one more. Along with that, they launched with proprietary connections and usage, like you could only put files on it from an Apple computer and/or with Apple software, stuff like that. They were talking about only supporting Apple audio file format too, so it wasn’t such a big news item really, it was more like, who do they think they are trying to kid, I couldn’t imagine any fool in their right mind buying into their seemingly badly wrought obvious attempt at a market coup. Funny how things turned out though, although they did open up their connections, file type support, methodology etc. to get where they are now.

    • jbelkin

      You are wrong. Apple did favor AAC/MP4 but if you actually bothered to learn anything about the mac-ipod, it accepted Mp3 files from Day 1 – it’s just that Apple thought most Windows encoded mp3 files were low fidelity and certainly windows users did not mind music at 56kbps versus a much better sound at 128kbps AAC but all you had to do to encode as an mp3 was choose it from a pulldown menu. Maybe you never bothered to actually spend more than 1 minute on itunes 1.0?

      If anything, it was Microsoft who wanted everyone to convert to WMA. If you were older than 9 at the time, you might learn about the actual history of digital music. Thanks to Apple, mp3 fidelity increased across the board along with the files they offered. Apple also offered WAV and Apple Lossless playback from Day 1 and when they launched the iTunes stores, you could turn it off if you wanted, Microsoft would not give out a free player unless you payed for it.

      Again, you are pretty much 100% wrong on the ipod-mac.

      • bIg hIlL

        Why bother learning anything about Apple AAC when we can just wait for the day when someone will voluntarily tell us the history of it, albeit in a derogatory and demeaning way. But I am sure it wasn’t quite the history that you purport, for instance there were loads of alternative MP3 players for windows, the most popular being the free WinAmp, which was used by millions of people and probably still is. It is most likely more responsible for the proliferation of the format than Apple could ever hope to have have been, although alternative biased history is commonplace nowadays; those in power tell it their way no matter whether it is true or not.