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MP4 is a multimedia/audio format developed by the ISO in the early years of the 21st century that expands on the previous MP3 format.
The full name is “MPEG 4 Part 14.”
In the 1990s, the MP3 format was the cutting-edge standard for digital audio files, and many small digital devices were developed to play these audio files, which could typically be extracted from physical compact discs.
These devices were called “MP3 players.”
In 2001, the ISO created MPEG 4 Part 14— better known as MP4 — and companies began to move toward this standard when making digital audio available to consumers.
Around the same general time frame, the Apple iTunes store was becoming the major retail hub (with few serious competitors) for purchasing digital songs, usually for one dollar a piece.
However, the move to MP4 was not without its problems. Since the development of MP4, user forums show a clear difficulty and frustration with backward compatibility and figuring out which files can play on which devices.
Even advanced operating systems sometimes have trouble with various kinds of MP4 files.
As mentioned in documentation of the format, MP4 does allow for more encoding of metadata. In theory, this makes digital audio files more useful.
Again, though, the practicality of playing these files on a wide range of devices means that MP3s had an enormous advantage in terms of common user access. By contrast, some of the MP4 players have been bedevilled by glitches and interface problems.
One aspect of MP4 also involves copyright protections, which may be a large part of the frustration with the MP4 format. With two types of MP4s, those which are copyright-protected and those which are not, a whole lot of confusion can result over playability and use.
As Wikipedia points out: “MPEG-4 files with audio streams encrypted by FairPlay Digital Rights Management as were sold through the iTunes Store use the .m4p extension. iTunes Plus tracks, that the iTunes Store currently sells, are unencrypted and use .m4a accordingly.”
All of this is extremely hard for the passive end user to navigate.
In general, new ranges of devices made some of these problems relatively obsolete. Trying to play an MP4 file on a traditional desktop computer or MP3 player may cause all kinds of hassles, including problems with audio codec formats.
However, in the smartphone era, downloading music directly onto a modern smartphone will be relatively easy. However, the biggest drive toward the obsolescence of the MP4 file is streaming music platforms.
With a variety of streaming music platforms from Pandora to Spotify and even free public ad-revenue platforms like YouTube, buying digital music is in itself becoming somewhat obsolete and rare.
This corresponds with trends back toward physical media, such as vinyl records. The prevailing idea seems to be that it is vastly more efficient for the music provider to hold all of the actual digital audio files in-house, and offer real-time play through a cloud or SaaS platform, than it is to sell individual digital audio files to users.
However, the MP4 format remains dominant in single-file transfer.