Format war

From Academic Kids

A format war describes competition between competing, and typically mutually incompatible, media formats, usually very costly to the format-owning parties involved. Perhaps the most famous example was the videotape format war of the late 1970s / early 1980s, between the rival VHS and Betamax Videotape formats.

Other examples include the following:

  • High-definition DVD formats: Blu-ray versus HD-DVD versus Enhanced Versatile Disc
  • Recordable DVD formats: DVD+R versus DVD-R, and originally DVD-RAM. Ultimately this has become a non-issue, as most new DVD recorders support both formats and are referred to as DVD±R; DVD-RAM, on the other hand, has not been so successful and is likely to ultimately fail due to a lack of compatibility with standard DVD discs.
  • Digital video data compression formats: Windows Media Video versus RealVideo versus DivX versus QuickTime. However, all formats work equally well on most major operating systems (OS's) like Microsoft Windows, which makes the stakes for the consumer considerably lower.
  • Digital audio data compression formats: MP3 versus Ogg Vorbis versus Advanced Audio Coding versus Windows Media Audio. As with digital video, the competing formats can be played on the same equipment. Each format has found its own niche— while MP3 is the de facto standard for audio encoding, WMA and AAC are favored by commercial music distributors, and Vorbis has found its strongest use among game developers and the like who have need for a high-quality audio codec but cannot afford to pay the licensing fees attached to other codecs.
  • Hi-fi digital audio discs: DVD-Audio versus SACD. These two formats are likely to coexist due to newer players that handle both formats with equal ease.
  • AM stereo was capable of even higher fidelity than FM but was doomed in the USA by competing formats during the 1980s with Motorola's C-QUAM competing vigorously with four other incompatible formats including those by Magnavox, Kahn/Haseltine, and Harris. It is still widely used in Japan, and sees sporadic use by broadcast stations in the United States despite the lack of consumer equipment to support it.
  • Portable audio tape formats: 8-track and four-track cartridges versus Compact audio cassette. The 8-track lost due to technical limitations, including variable audio quality and lack of fine control.
  • Vinyl record formats: Columbia Records' 12-inch (30 cm) Long Play (LP) 33⅓ rpm microgroove record versus RCA Victor's 7" (17.5 cm) / 45 rpm Extended Play (EP) during the years 1948-1950. Ended in a compromise because each format found a separate marketing niche, and record players were redesigned to use either type. Both formats were nearly eliminated with the rise of the compact disc, though 12" vinyl records are still used by niche audiences such as disk jockeys and audiophiles.
  • Micro Channel Architecture vs. Extended Industry Standard Architecture -- Competing standards developed by IBM and Compaq respectively to replace the system expansion bus of the PC. Neither was particularly successful, as the computer industry as a whole shifted to PCI in the early 1990s.
  • x2 vs K56flex -- these predecessors to the V.90 and V.92 modem protocols engaged in a brief fight for market dominance until V.90 (based on K56flex, but not identical) was ratified in the late 1990s. For some time, online providers were required to maintain two modem banks for what was then high-speed access.

An ironic aspect of format wars is that perceived technical superiority does not always win. Though Betamax had better picture quality than VHS, a number of factors including VHS's longer recording time, wider range of models and suppliers, and lower cost relegated Beta to a professional production role. As listed above, there are also format wars that neither side wins, due to the technology becoming obsolete.


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