Format War

vhs vs beta

A format war describes competition between mutually incompatible proprietary formats that compete for the same market, typically for data storage devices and recording formats for electronic media.

It is often characterized by political and financial influence on content publishers by the developers of the technologies. Developing companies may be characterized as engaging in a format war if they actively oppose or avoid interoperable open industry technical standards in favor of their own.

An early format wars occurred in the 19th century with rail gauge (the spacing of the rails on a railway track) in North America. During the initial period of railroad building, standard gauge was adopted in most of the north-eastern United States, while the wider gauge, later called ‘Russian,’ was preferred in most of the southern states. In 1886, the southern railroads agreed to coordinate changing gauge on all their tracks. By 1886, all major railroads in North America were using approximately the same gauge.

A ‘War of Currents took’ place in the late 1880s. George Westinghouse promoted alternating current (advocated by several European companies) for electric power distribution from Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh. His adversary, Thomas Edison, fought to make direct current the standard. The battle between these two parties to control the market for electricity became a conflict much beyond competing technical standards. Both Westinghouse and Edison attempted to win the public to their side by instilling fear of the other type of electricity distribution through a series of extensive public campaigns of lies. Ultimately, the AC power system prevailed.

The first music format war took place in the 19th century with mechanical music boxes. Several manufacturers introduced devices that utilized interchangeable steel disks that carried the tune. The principal players were Polyphon, Symphonion (in Europe) and Regina (in the United States). Each manufacturer used its own unique set of disc sizes (which varied depending on the exact model purchased). This assured that once the purchaser had bought his music box, he had to buy the music discs from the same manufacturer.

At the turn of the century, a looming format war involving paper roll music for player pianos was averted when industry leaders agreed upon a common format at the Buffalo Convention held in Buffalo, New York in 1908. The agreed-upon format was a roll 11.25 inches wide with holes spaced 9 per inch. This allowed any roll of music to be played in any player piano, regardless of who manufactured it. As the music played, the paper winds onto the lower roll from the upper roll, which means any text or song lyrics printed on the rolls is read from the bottom to the top.

In 1877 Thomas Edison invented sound recording technology using a tin cylinder record, and soon thereafter mass-marketed the wax ‘Edison cylinder.’ In 1886 gramophone pioneer Emile Berliner invented disc records. By the late 1890s cylinders and disks were widespread. Cylinders were more expensive to manufacture, but most cylinder players could make recordings. Disks saved space and were cheaper, but due to the constant angular velocity (CAV) of their rotation, the sound quality varied noticeably from the long outer edge to the short inner portion nearest the center; and disk record players could not make recordings. Edison refused to produce the disks until Berliner’s patent expired in the late 1910s.

When Edison finally introduced his ‘diamond disc’ (using a diamond instead of a steel needle), it was cut ‘hill-and-dale,’ meaning that the groove modulated on the vertical axis as it had on all cylinders — unlike other manufacturers’ disks which were cut laterally, meaning that the groove modulated on the horizontal axis. Pathe Freres also adopted the hill-and-dale system in France, but this was done at the behest of the French government in order to create a deliberate incompatibility, preventing French citizens from playing ‘inappropriate’ foreign records.

In 1929 Thomas Edison bowed out of the record industry altogether, ceasing all production of his disks and cylinders, which he had also manufactured up to that point. In addition, there were several more minor format wars between the various brands using various speeds ranging from 72 to 96 rpm, not mention needle or stylus radii varying from 0.018 inches up to 0.042 inches – the current 0.03 inch radius needle or stylus is a compromise as no company actually used this size. The Edison discs rotated at about 80 rpm.

In 1936, the BBC Television Service commenced television broadcasting from Alexandra Palace in North London. They began by using two mutually incompatible television standards broadcasting on alternate weeks. The 240-line Baird sequential system (now inaccurately called progressive) was broadcast using a mechanically scanned apparatus. In the intervening weeks, EMI-Marconi broadcast in 405 line interlaced using fully electronic cameras. Early sets had to support both systems, adding to their complexity.

It was the BBC’s intention to run the two systems side by side for a six-month trial to determine which would be finally adopted. The fledgling station quickly discovered that the fully electronic EMI system had a superior picture quality and less flicker. Also the camera equipment was much more mobile and transportable (Baird’s intermediate-film cameras had to be bolted to the studio floor as they required a water supply). In the event, the trial was brought to a premature end after three months by a disastrous fire in the Baird studios which destroyed most of Baird’s equipment.

The music format wars began anew in the 1940s with vinyl records. Columbia Records’ 12-inch (30 cm) Long Play (LP) 33⅓ rpm microgroove record competed with RCA Victor’s 7-inch (17.5 cm) / 45 rpm Extended Play (EP). The war was over by the end of the decade as more record players were designed to play either type.

In the 1960s a format war took place in portable audio pitting 8-track and four-track cartridges against Compact Cassette, and the lesser known and largely forgotten Deutsche Cassette (introduced by Grundig). While rather successful into the mid-to-late 1970s, the 8-track eventually lost out due to technical limitations, including variable audio quality and inability to be rewound. A war was also fought in smaller formats (for applications requiring lower audio fidelity such as dictation and telephone answering machines), with Olympus’ microcassette competing against Sony’s minicassette.

The 1970s saw the start of the analog video videotape format war: JVC VHS vs. Sony Betamax vs. Philips Video 2000. The competition started in 1976 and by 1980, VHS controlled 70% of the North American market. VHS’s main advantage was its longer recording time. From the consumer perspective, VHS blank media held more hours and therefore was less expensive.

In the 1980s a variety of computer formats competed in the newly expanding consumer market. Home computers often had incompatible peripherals such as joysticks, printers, or data recording (tape or disk). For example if a Commodore 64 user wanted a printer, they would need to buy a Commodore-compatible unit, or else risk not being able to plug the printer into his computer. Similarly, disk formats were not interchangeable without third party software since each manufacturer (Atari, IBM, Apple, et al.) used their own proprietary format.

Gradually computer and game systems standardized on ‘Atari 2600 connectors’ for joysticks and mice (during the 1980s), parallel port for printers (mid-1980s), the MS-DOS-derived FAT12 format for floppy disks (mid-1990s), and so on. The main standards used on today’s post-2000 computers for inter-compatibility are USB for external devices, Serial ATA for internal drives, and FAT32 on pre-formatted hard drives (exceptions apply to pre-formatted hard drives marketed for Macs). Some incompatibilities still exist between computers with Windows-based machines and Macintosh file formats, due to the restrictions on filename length and which characters are allowable as part of the filename.

In the latter half of the 1990s, as 3D graphics became more common and popular, several video formats were promoted by different vendors including DirectX, OpenGL, and Glide API. The proliferation of standards (each having many versions with frequent and significant changes) led to great complexity, redundancy, and frustrating hardware and software compatibility issues. 3D graphics applications (such as games) attempted to support a variety of APIs with varying results, or simply supported only a single API. Glide eventually dropped out of the war due to the only manufacturer supporting it, 3dfx, ceasing production of their video cards.

The 90s also saw a four-way contest in memory cards between CompactFlash, Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard / Secure Digital card, and SmartMedia. The format war became a five-way contest with the introduction of xD-Picture Card in the next decade, although by then SmartMedia was falling into disuse. This ongoing contest is complicated by the existence of multiple variants of the various formats. Some of these, such as miniSD, are compatible with their parent formats, while current generations of Memory Sticks break compatibility with the original format. However, SD gained ground in 2010 when companies such as Fujifilm, Olympus and Sony that had exclusively supported other formats, began releasing products that can use SD cards.

The most notable format war in the 2000s was between Sony’s Blu-ray Disc and Toshiba’s HD-DVD. The first HD-DVD player was released in March 2006, followed quickly by a Blu-ray player in June. In addition to the home video standalone players for each format, Sony’s PlayStation 3 video game console offers a Blu-ray Disc player and its games use that format as well. The format war went in Blu-ray’s favor after the largest movie studio supporting HD DVD, Warner Brothers, decided to abandon releasing films on HD-DVD in 2008. Shortly thereafter, several major North American rental services and retailers such as Netflix, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, etc. and disc manufacturers such as CMC Magnetics, Ritek, Anwell, and others, announced the exclusive support for Blu-ray products, ending the format war.

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