Top 10 Format Wars
A format war occurs when two incompatible versions of a similar technology begin to compete against one another in the market. In almost every case, one of the two formats wins out in the end, either because of a better marketing strategy or a superior product, leaving groups of unlucky consumers with an obsolete technology (Laserdisc, anyone?). Format wars are most common in the realm of audio and video technology, but they’ve also involved computers, digital media storage, and even (in one legendary case) something as basic as electricity. Here are ten of the most famous examples:
10. DVD vs. DIVX
In the late 90s, a format war erupted between DVD and DIVX, two early pioneers in the digital home video market. DVD followed in the footsteps of VHS and Laserdisc as a dedicated home video format, albeit with superior picture and sound quality. DIVX, meanwhile, was a bit more complicated. The movies came on a disc that looked similar to a DVD, but they could only be played on a specialized DIVX machine. Customers could buy DIVX movies for $4, but the disc would only be playable for 48 hours. After that, they’d have to pay a small additional fee via a subscription service to watch it again, or an even bigger fee to access unlimited views.
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone with a Netflix account that things didn’t work out too well for the folks at DIVX. For starters, consumers never truly embraced the pay-for-play format that the company was trying to engineer. Videophiles shunned the idea of not being able to easily collect movies on DIVX, and the idea of a subscription-based video service rubbed most consumers the wrong way—one guy even started a “ban DIVX” petition online. What’s more, big box stores and video shops balked at the idea that by selling DIVX they would only be able to make a meager profit. The $4 discs were much cheaper than DVDs, and any profits from consumers buying infinite plays or paying for additional views went straight to the DIVX subscription service. The format eventually crumbled, losing millions for the now-defunct Circuit City, which sold the discs, and the few major studios that tried to embrace it.
9. VHS-C vs. Video 8
In the 80s and 90s, personal camcorders became the battleground for a clash between two rival tape formats: VHS-C and Video-8. Video-8 and its higher quality successor, Hi8, were both pioneered by Sony, which made the format famous with the release of the Handycam in 1985. JVC created the VHS-C format in 1982, and it quickly caught on thanks to its ease of use. Simplest of all were the format’s tapes, which could easily be played back by putting the VHS-C tape inside a VHS tape adapter. By the late 80s, the two formats had largely taken over the consumer video market, and the battle between the two would last through much of the 1990s.
This is one of the rare cases where both formats managed to be successful. Thanks to their longer recording time and slightly better quality, video-8 and Hi8 were believed by most to be the better format. Still, VHS-C stayed popular thanks to one thing: playback. Most people didn’t use the cameras for anything more than recording vacations and birthdays, and what mattered most was being able to easily watch the videos on their home televisions. With Video 8 or Hi8, this meant recording the tapes to VHS or hooking the camera up to the television. With VHS-C, users just had to pop the camera tapes into a VHS adapter and they were ready to go. This unique feature kept the two formats at war through most of the 90s, and it was only with the advent of digital video that they finally started to fade.
8. Super Audio CD vs. DVD-Audio
After the success of DVDs in the late 90s, Sony and Phillips combined to create Super Audio CD, a new format of music on disc that used the superior capacity of DVD technology to create high quality audio discs. SACD was quickly followed by the release of Toshiba’s DVD-Audio in 2000, and it wasn’t long before a format war was under way. The battle centered on compatibility. Not only were the DVD music players expensive, but consumers were loathe to switch formats after having had over ten years to acquire shelves of CDs. Both systems countered this by making their players backward compatible—they could play DVD discs as well as regular old compact discs. On top of this, DVD-Audio discs were designed to be compatible with most DVD players already on the market. SACD, meanwhile, designed hybrid discs that had both a CD and an SACD layer, so that they could be played in either device
Not all format wars have a clear winner. In the case of SACD vs. DVD-Audio, the confusion created by the brand rivalry nearly ran both formats out of business. Cost was the first problem. Early SACD models easily ran a few thousand dollars, and even today the devices aren’t cheap. Not only that, but the two sides were in such a rush to get their players and discs on the market that there were several mistakes made along the way. Compression issues and other technical difficulties meant that early on both formats had trouble truly proving their superiority to CD. These problems, along with consumer mistrust of the viability of DVD music, prevented both formats from ever gaining a foothold in the market.
7. Sirius vs. XM
In early 2000s, the battle over “the future of radio” began when XM and Sirius both began jockeying for control of the satellite radio industry. Early on, XM easily had twice the subscribers of Sirius, but aggressive marketing and partnership deals by both companies had soon leveled the playing field. By 2005, the two sides had a near-even split on the sports market, and both had made deals with separate auto companies to have their receivers pre-installed in new cars. Even the celebrities joined in, as both companies began enlisting major figures like Martha Stewart, Bob Dylan, and Oprah. The biggest of all went down in 2006, when Sirius struck a major blow by luring radio sensation Howard Stern over to their service.
Both, depending on how you look at it. There’s nothing like a good old fashioned monopoly, and that’s nearly what Sirius and XM achieved in 2008, when the two companies merged to form Sirius XM radio, a massive single company that now boasts over 18 million subscribers. The merger was more than a bit controversial—the FCC had previously granted licenses to XM and Sirius with the stipulation that one would not be allowed to swallow up the other—but it went through anyway, giving the newly formed company a huge market share of the satellite radio industry. Despite concerns about the new mega-company becoming a monopoly, Sirius XM has struggled quite a bit since the merger. Trouble in the car industry hurt sales of their pre-installed receivers, and the rise of internet radio and podcasts has also cut into their business.
6. 8-Track vs. Cassette
The 60s and 70s brought on another audio format war in the form of the 8-track vs. the cassette tape. 8-track, or Stereo 8, debuted in 1964, and at first it was seen as the natural successor to vinyl. With 8-track, users could skip forward to individual songs with the touch of a button—a feature that wouldn’t appear elsewhere until compact discs came about in the 80s. Also, because the cartridges used magnetic tape instead of discs, they had a level of portability that had previously been unheard of, and they were soon being installed as hi-fi systems in cars, especially in the United States. The 8-track party finally came to an end in the early 1970s, when cassette tapes, which had previously only been used for office dictation, began being marketed as a home music format.
8-track tapes slowly went the way of the buffalo during the early 80s, and cassette tapes took over the music market until the rise of the CD. Oddly enough, because they ran at twice the speed of cassette tapes, 8-tracks technically had a higher sound quality, but inherent design flaws meant that they were more likely to have problems with background noise and pitch shifts. This is not to mention that the tracking system meant songs would often be rearranged, and there would sometimes be long periods of silence between them. By the early 80s, cassette tapes had taken over and 8-track players were no longer being produced, but they still retain a small cult following of enthusiasts to this day.
5. Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD
A bitter format war occurred from 2006-2008, when Sony’s Blu-Ray and Toshiba’s HD DVD battled for control of the high definition video market. The tension originally started with the invention of the blue laser diode, which Sony championed and developed into a new format it called Blu-Ray. A syndicate of electronics companies soon formed in support of the new technology, but Toshiba, along with Microsoft and a few other major manufacturers, were wary of the cost. Negotiations between the two factions stalled when the Blu-Ray supporters snubbed Microsoft’s interactivity feature, HDi, in favor of a Java platform known as BD-J. Toshiba and Microsoft soon announced that they were pursuing their own high def video system, which would later be known as HD DVD. This was followed by a bitter war of words and cries of foul play, and both sides had soon formed alliances with electronics manufacturers and film companies.
Both formats were released to the public in 2006. Blu-Ray scored a major hit in that same year, when Sony announced that it was using the technology as a means of storage in its Playstation 3 game system. Toshiba and Microsoft tried to include a similar package in the Xbox 360, but they were slow in rolling it out, and Blu-Ray had soon made a major jump in the market. The deathblow for HD DVD came in 2008, when Warner Bros., one of its biggest champions, jumped ship and defected to Blu-Ray. This set off a chain reaction of shifting alliances that saw nearly every major manufacturer and retailer abandon HD-DVD within a few weeks. Defeated, Toshiba discontinued the format in February of 2008.
4. Disk Records vs. Wax Cylinders
The most famous audio format war was between Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, both of whom invented competing types of records for the phonograph. Edison first pioneered the wax cylinder in the 1880s. He originally intended it as a means of recording telephone conversations, but the cylinders soon became a popular format for musical recordings. Berliner, meanwhile, released the disk record as a competing format in 1894. Disks had originally been used solely in children’s toys, and in the beginning their sound quality was poor. But after several technical modifications, they were able to rival Edison’s cylinders in sound quality, sparking a format war that would last nearly 20 years.
There’s a reason they call them record stores and not cylinder stores. Despite the cylinder’s initial dominance, disk records won out in the end, and by the late 1920s, even Edison had started marketing his own version of Berliner’s product. This is not to say that there weren’t drawbacks to the disk format. The sound quality tended to be a bit tinnier than a cylinder, and disk records could easily get damaged after being played enough times. Unfortunately for Edison, the battle ultimately came down to ease of production. Disk records were much cheaper and easier to make, since they could simply be stamped out on a press. This helped make the disks a cheaper alternative, and once they started being recorded on both sides, people were able to get twice the music for the same price. Not only that, but disk records were easier to ship, and consumers liked the fact that they could easily be stacked and stored on a shelf like books.
3. VHS vs. Betamax
The battle over VCR formats arose in the mid-70s, when Sony’s Betamax tapes engaged in a 15-year competition with JVC’s VHS. In the beginning, the war included five or six different videotape formats—Video 2000, V-Cord, Umatic, VX—but after only a few years VHS and Betamax had separated themselves from the pack. With its higher resolution, more reliable playback, and snazzier features, Betamax was seen as the higher quality alternative—but it sported a higher price to prove it. VHS was a more basic format, save for one key area: capacity. While Betamax players could only record for 60 minutes, VHS could copy as much as 120 minutes of programming. After RCA introduced long play tapes, the capacity doubled to 4 hours, and this proved to be a major tipping point in the format war.
Despite its superior features, Betamax eventually lost out to VHS, and by 1993 the players weren’t even available in stores in the U.S. anymore. Sony was never able to get manufacturers to really embrace its product, and this meant that the price could never be lowered enough to compete with VHS. Meanwhile, the 60-minute recording limit ultimately proved to be a deal breaker for most buyers: consumers simply didn’t want to invest in a format that they couldn’t set to record a movie or a football game without having to switch tapes. A long running urban myth has it that the undoing of Beta came down to Sony’s reluctance to release porn videos, but this has since been proven to be largely unfounded. The failure ultimately hinged on economics. The format did live on elsewhere—Beta video players were still being produced in Japan as recently as 2002, and Betacam technology and tape was used widely in the video production industry for years prior to the rise of digital video—but the home video version of it has since gone down in infamy as perhaps the most well known failed format of all time.
2. The Home Computer War
Today the competition has boiled down to just “Mac vs. PC,” but in the early 80s, there was a fierce format war between several different companies for control of the burgeoning home computer industry. Mac and the original IBM PC were both frontrunners in the contest, but there were also a number of other models that some people today might not have heard of, like the Commodore 64, the Amstrad CPC, the Timex Sinclair 1000, and the Atari 8-bit. Not only did these different machines compete to see who could be the biggest seller, but they were also all gunning to establish a trusted format. This was because early on in the computer wars, most of the tech was completely incompatible with other formats. A joystick from an Atari computer wouldn’t work with a Mac; a keyboard from a Mac wouldn’t work with a PC; and a printer for a PC wouldn’t work with a Commodore 64. Even floppy disks weren’t universal, and this lack of compatibility only fed the flames of what became a campaign of rapid progress and aggressive marketing.
Not surprisingly, in the long term it was Apple and the IBM PC who were able to outlast the competition. The 80s, though, were another story. Both IBM and Apple were frequently outsold by competitors, particularly in the case of the Commodore 64, which moved some 30 million units to become the best selling PC of all time. On the whole, though, the companies avoided a true format war when they settled on a few basic forms of connectivity (Atari 2600 connectors for joysticks and computer mice, DOS FAT-21 floppy drives), which made the units at least mildly compatible. Likewise, PCs and Apple computers today use USB as a means of compatibility, and most Mac computers are now even capable of running on the Windows platform. The format war between the two still continues, but if the steady sales of both PCs and MacBooks are proof of anything, it’s that neither format will be declared the outright winner any time soon.
1. Alternating Current vs. Direct Current
The most bitter format war in history was also one of the first. In what has come to be known as “the War of Currents,” Thomas Edison’s direct current battled against Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse’s alternating current for control of the U.S. power grid. At the time, Edison’s direct current was the standard in the United States, and it was up and running in a number of major cities. But there were problems with DC’s distribution technology. In a direct current system, a power plant was connected to distribution conductors, which then branched out to individual customers. While practical, this system ensured that the electricity could only be transmitted at one voltage, no matter if it was feeding a single light bulb or a large engine. Westinghouse and Tesla offered the answer to this problem in the form of alternating current. AC used a transformer to allow for different levels of voltage to be transmitted to different locations depending on demand. Not only that, but using a transformer let AC current transmit at much faster speeds, allowing for fewer power plants to serve larger areas.
Westinghouse and Tesla’s superior technology eventually won out, but only after significant controversy. Ever the master of media manipulation, Edison held public demonstrations where he electrocuted animals with AC in order to show how dangerous it was to transmit electricity at high voltage. He even used AC to develop the first electric chair, which, because of inadequate voltage, put on a gruesome display the first time it was used on a death row inmate. But despite Edison’s attempts to disparage AC, in 1893 Westinghouse won a major contract to use it to generate hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls. The experiment was a rousing success, and it proved to be the tipping point in the War of Currents. AC eventually replaced DC in the central power grid, and after a few years even Edison’s General Electric company was producing AC machines.
by Evan Andrews