Digital audio comes in many formats, and it will continue to exist in multiple formats for the foreseeable future. Different formats are often fine-tuned to specific applications, such as telecommunications, satellite radio, or surround sound.
While some specialized formats are necessary for certain applications, many of the current formats for digital audio are redundant—they serve the same purpose as many other formats. Some offer better digital rights management (DRM), some sound better at low bit-rates, and some are better for streaming, but when you’re dealing with the most advanced formats (AAC and WMA, for example), these differences are insignificant.
Still, the standards war rages on, and the stakes are extremely high. Consider the amount of revenue that a widely accepted technology owned by a single company can generate—that’s why companies such as Microsoft and Real Networks push their own formats, despite the fact that the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) has established several widely supported and very capable audio and video formats. It’s like the war between the Betamax and VHS video formats all over again, but on a much larger scale, involving more formats and more companies.
Some competition between formats is good, but ultimately the market will decide which formats stay—and the best format is not always the one that wins. Often, the format that’s first and “good enough” succeeds. The VHS format was inferior to Betamax, but VHS ...