Format wars

Hands up who owned a Betamax video recorder!

If you did, you probably realised a very long time ago that you wasted your money. If you went with VHS, you made the right move! Congratulations on having spend a couple of decades watching snowy and blurry recordings of last night’s television highlights.

Betamax vs. VHS isn’t the only format war ever to have graced consumers’ shelves, but it is the most famous. It also seems to have been largely Sony’s fault – they could easily have backed down in the mid-1970s and gone with VHS instead, but they elected to support their own format instead.

For the best part of a decade, the format war raged, and it’s difficult to say now who was ever going to benefit from it. It’s not even the only time Sony have done it – they were one of the main proponents of the MiniDisc format, and also tried to push their own Atrac3 technology to replace mp3s. It’s difficult to understand now what they ever hoped to achieve with this – perhaps they just thought the strength of their Walkman brand was enough to kill the competitors.

Apart from the brief incursion of 8-track cartridges in the 1970s, the first real incursion of format wars on the audio world was when MiniDiscs and Digital Compact Cassettes (DCCs) launched in 1992. Neither really had much to offer – both used heavy digital compression, although DCCs were slightly better quality. DCCs also offered artist and track information via their data tracks from initial launch, whereas MiniDiscs only gained that capability later. Oh, and you could play normal cassette tapes in your DCC player. Just in case you were missing the tape hiss or something.

For a while, it looked as though DCCs might actually be a hit – a number of commercial record companies started releasing albums in the format – and then MiniDiscs started to take over in the late 1990s.

Ultimately, they turned out to be pretty pointless too, although the brief era of digital recording which was made possible by the MiniDisc was welcome, but in the long run you wasted your money if you invested in either format.

This is the recurring story of format wars – one of consumers wasting money. If you were unfortunate enough to choose HD-DVDs rather than BluRays, you wasted your money. SACDs might sound amazing, but are they really better than DVD Audio? And in the scheme of things, since most people can’t play either, who cares?

Even the manufacturers can’t have made a lot of money out of flogging these dead horses. The only winners of the format wars have really been the record (and movie) companies, who had an entirely valid excuse to sell us the same product multiple times. They didn’t even need to invent excuses like remasters or special editions – we did the work for them by buying into the wrong format in the first place.

There are many things to be grateful for in this digital age, and being spared the pain of the format wars is definitely one of them. Ultimately, consumers had relatively little control over what was going to win, and so every format war was just a waste of time and money all round.

1 thought on “Format wars

  1. Pingback: The Day the Music Died | Music for stowaways

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