Last week I used – intensively – an iMac for the first time. I was impressed with certain things (iTunes was slick and mostly worked) and unimpressed with others (Mail had subtle bugs relating to using IMAP folders).

An inveterate critic, I came away disappointed. I had wanted to really love this machine. It had cool things I thought I wanted: BSD under the hood, GarageBand, a groovy user interface... And yet something spoiled it for me.

I thought about this later and realized what it was: Apple has sold out the Open Source community, at least where audio software is concerned.

Why do I claim this?

It helps to step back a bit. In September 1998, Fraunhofer IIS sent a “letter of infringement” to several open-source MP3-related projects, sending an immediate chill through that community. Like the GIF image format, it was clear that MP3 was going to be a software patent battleground.

Immediately thereafter xiph.org was founded to develop free, open source audio (and now video) codecs that everyone could use (and sell!) without fear of patent infringement.

In parallel with this, the MPEG developed a new non-free codec, the so-called Advanced Audio Codec (AAC), designed to be a higher-quality replacement for MP3. xiph.org’s free Ogg Vorbis codec is AAC’s main competition.

Given this bit of background, which high-quality codec do you think Apple chose for the iPod, the iTunes software (when importing, or “ripping”, songs from CD), and the iTunes store?

That’s right: AAC. They had an awesome opportunity to support an open-source audio project that is critically-important in the fight against corporate control of media, and they failed. Given the huge popularity of iPods & iTunes this would have been a huge boon to Ogg Vorbis. Apple may instead have sounded its death knell.