Here comes Opus: a new, open audio codec

MP3, watch out, there’s a new codec in town. Mozilla and the Xiph Foundation announced the 1.0 release of a new audio codec called Opus Tuesday, which was jointly developed by the two organizations in collaboration with Google (s GOOG), Microsoft’s (s MSFT) Skype unit, Broadcom (s BRCM) and Octasic. The release comes just one day after the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) officially standardized Opus as RFC 6716.

Opus was originally developed with narrowband, real time applications in mind, including audio and video chat. It works with bitrates as little as 6 kbps, which makes it a great choice for VoIP and video chat applications on mobile data networks. However, the codec also supports bitrates up to 510 kbps in full 48 kHz stereo. “It is The One Codec,” founder Monty Montgomery told me via IM Tuesday morning.

Montgomery’s Xiph Foundation previously spearheaded the development of Ogg Vorbis, an open and royalty-free audio codec that was at one point supposed to replace the popular MP3 format. MP3 was developed by the German Fraunhofer Institute, which has been licensing the codec for commercial use ever since. Anyone using MP3 for a commercial music service has to fork over 2 percent of revenues generated with the format, and the use of the codec in applications such as iTunes (s AAPL) or even video games costs money as well.

Ogg Vorbis never really caught on with end users, but it is powering some big applications under the hood. Spotify, for example, uses the MP3 competitor to stream music to its desktop application, and the codec is also used by popular video games like World of Warcraft. Some of these companies might be inclined to switch to Opus, Montgomery said. “Opus has lower overhead, no big headers, scales better… it’s just a better codec,” he told me.

Still, it’s likely that one the major use cases for Opus will be real-time communication. The codec has low latency, and can adapt to changing bandwidth conditions without any need for rebuffering. Opus is going to play a key part in WebRTC, the new real-time messaging framework backed by Google and others that is meant to enable voice and video chat in the browser without the need for any additional plugins. Firefox is already supporting native playback of Opus, and Google has expressed interest in shipping it as part of Chrome as well.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ghewgill.