Format wars are the frontline battles of capitalism. Two or more companies fight over your attention, wanting to bring you the same service, but using their methods. Sometimes the wars are decided by consumers on the basis of price and functionality; sometimes because one side screws up royally; and sometimes by whoever throws the most advertising money into the fight. Yet, in almost every case there's a winner and a loser. Here's celebrating those that valiantly tried and failed, the casualties of the format wars.
Honorary Mention: Player Pianos
The very first format war on record, and possibly the first ever — though I’m sure at one point the Egyptians argued at the merits of different stone types for engraving — is an incredibly rare occurrence: it ended with a compromise. No big winner or loser. Various companies didn’t decide to grind each other into the dust using all the brutal and uncaring might of the capitalist system. They didn’t buy out reviewers, push half-finished products into the market, or unduly attempt to influence buyers. They met in the middle. The disagreement was over the format for paper recording that would go in player pianos, and it was decided that the rolls would be 11.25 inches wide with holes spaced 9 per inch. And everybody cooperated, and they could all play each other’s music! Yay!
12. Edison Cylinders
The original battle over recorded audio: the Edison cylinder vs the disk record — the latter of which is still in use today. Technically called phonograph cylinders, the earliest had a layer of semi-soft wax around the outside, and could only be played around 100 times before losing the audio — but you could then shave them down and embed another recording on them. Later developments to the format would allow them to last permanently, but the vinyl would go on to win out, at least partly because they were much easier to store as you could stack them flat, the ability to record on both sides, plus they were less susceptible to fluctuations in the player causing the sounds to come out all warped.
Oh, the 8-track. Once a staple of the 70s, now nothing so much as a joke, and a mysterious object to a generation of kids who don’t know what a cassette is, let alone an 8-track. The reasons it eventually lost to the cassette are pretty obvious — huge size, it couldn’t rewind, and lower audio quality, especially later in life. Can you imagine that? Not being able to rewind? Good lord, to us it seems foreign not to be able to pick what song we want and just listen to it immediately, but to not even have the granularity of tracing backwards is such a major feature. The final major 8-track release was in 1988, though underground and indie labels continued to produce on the format for some time.
10. Philips Video 2000
The real loser of the infamous home videotape war. VHS won. Betamax came a distant second. But Philips Video 2000? No one’s even heard of that, at least we know Betamax existed. When it came out, it was incredibly high tech. Like a cassette, you could record on each side, doubling the recording length allowed on a single unit. The tape inside it was better protected than the competition, it didn’t need video tracking, could auto-rewind, and had excellent noise reduction. The very final models that could play these had an amazing extra-long mode, doubling the amount of footage that could be recorded up to a whopping 16 hours! However, Video 2000 was a late entrant into the battle of video formats, and couldn’t fight against the established market share of the other two formats, not to mention being plagued with hardware problems.
9. Direct Current
The AC/DC debate is probably the only format war on the planet that caused the death of an elephant, and proves once again that Edison was an enormous asshole. Edison was a proponent of direct current, where Tesla was the man behind alternating current. The latter had the immense advantage that through the use of transformers it could travel an extremely long distance over power lines before entering peoples homes. Edison went on a major spree attempting to discredit the technology, to the point of showing its dangers by viciously electrocuting animals to death to show just how bad it was. Not content with small animals, he went on to zap a horse to death, and eventually Topsy the elephant, condemned to die for killing three men in three years. However, his attempts to discredit AC did him no good, and it won out in the War of the Currents.
A CD can only hold a limited about of info, right? Around 700MB. So if you need to store a really big bit of information, you need more storage. So how do you achieve that? You make the disc that much bigger! While technically a forerunner to the compact disc, LaserDiscs really came to prominence as "those CDs as big as records". For a very long time, they were what you got if you were a true videophile, as they offered incredibly high resolution for the time period, you could skip chapters, they could have director’s commentaries and the like, and they wouldn’t wear out like videos would after hundreds of watches. They were to VHS was CDs were to tapes. Unfortunately, the discs were large, expensive, and had to be flipped half way through the movie. While they remained the format for hardcore movie buffs, they just couldn’t compete with the ubiquitous, cheap, and user writable VHSs.
7. iOmega Zip Drive
Yeah, you remember these monstrosities. From that weird period when a 1.4MB floppy was just too small, but CD writers were few and far between, everyone flocked to the Zip drive and its brethren. Capable of holding a whopping 100MB, they made a horrible scraping noise that always made you think something had gone terribly wrong, and when the disks ejected they came flying out at decapitating speeds. And if you ever used them extensively, there was one thing that you came to fear above all others: the click of death. That clicking noise that if you heard, you knew your were boned, and all your data was completely and utterly lost, and could not be recovered. Zip denied that there was any problem with their products, even through thousands of complaints. The Zip eventually faded into obscurity with the rise of cheap HD storage, USB drives, and CD-R and DVD-Rs becoming more popular.
Probably the most recent format war that we’re all familiar with was the HD-DVD/Blu-ray battle, as the successor to DVDs was decided. Toshiba, NEC, Sanyo, Microsoft, RCA, Intel, and Venturer Electronics all put their weight behind the HD-DVD, but couldn’t hold up to the immense power of Blu-ray and its corporate backers, even the usually defeat prone Sony. The HD disc war was decided not through anything like consumer choice or reliability, but rather on what studios backed which format, guaranteeing content for their choice. Couple this with Sony adding a Blu-Ray player to the PS3, and all of a sudden you could get a great console with a next-gen player that all the major studios exclusively supported, even though HD-DVD players were generally cheaper. Sorry Toshiba.
If you’ve ever been shopping in one of those dodgy video stores in your local Chinatown, you’ve doubtless encountered the videoCD. Low quality compressions of movies (half VHS resolution), spread out over two CDs, without the ability to skip scenes. They flourished throughout Asia because the readers were extremely cheap, could handle the abuses that humidity caused, the discs went for next to nothing and could be copied at home, and they could easily have two different audio tracks. The format never took off in America or Europe, but in less wealthy markets, it still has a substantial marketshare. They’re still how you pick up most karaoke releases.
4. xD-Picture Card
Fuck Olympus and Fujifilm due to this horrible abortion of a storage medium. Thankfully obsolete as of 2010, if you have a camera by either company older than that, chances are you had to get an xD card instead of SDHC, which just about every other camera on the planet uses. They were horrible. Smaller than SD, but larger than Micro-SD, they had lower capacities, cost significantly more, were hard to find, ran slower, and worked on only a handful of devices. They were the bane of otherwise excellent cameras, and good luck getting a replacement one if you were traveling overseas and lost yours. SD cards are incredibly common, and can be purchased anywhere, the storage equivalent of a AA battery. The xD is like require a half-dozen N batteries instead.
If you used the internet in the late 90s or early 00s, you doubtless remember the utterly abysmal RealPlayer, an early foray into the world of streaming video. Whenever a file linked to a .rm, you started cursing because you knew you would have to use this horrible, horrible format. It buffered every 5 seconds, was incapable of playing a file through, crashed like nobody’s business, sucked resources, loaded with spyware and adware, streamed unwatchably low quality videos, and was generally just a pile of suck. Every now and then I still run into a .rm file floating around the internet somewhere, which prompts me to suffer brutal flashbacks and start a swearing tirade. It has gone the way of the dinosaurs, and good freaking riddance.
2. Video Game Cartridges
And so we shed a single tear, for the venerable game cartridge. While not officially dead, it’s all but gone, succeeded by optical media of all descriptions. Sure, the DS franchise still uses cartridges, but that’s it. The true final hurrah of the cartridge was the N64, who battled the CD powered likes of the PSX and the DreamCast. Gone are the days where blowing in a cartridge would fix a bad startup, or you could chuck the game across the room and have it fly accurately and land without damage. In the war against discs, cartridges had one major advantage: load times. The first games for the PlayStation had load times so long that Namco patented the ability to play old arcade games while waiting for a level to load. That’s right, you could plow through Galaxian while Tekken loaded. Unfortunately, the cartridges couldn’t store video files the way CDs could, so you never got the sexy pre-rendered scenes that the likes of the PS had. Plus, they were much more expensive for the companies to make. I miss cartridges, but they just couldn’t keep up.
Barring Blu-ray, Sony has lost just about every format war its fought in, to the point where if they back a contender, you’d better get out of the market. Here’s a brief list of their losers: BetaMax, Minicasette, MiniDisc, Digital Audio Tape, MMCD, and Memory Stick. For each of these formats, they threw their entire empire’s weight behind it, backing them long after they had failed. You know Sony still makes a MiniDisc player? When the hell was the last time someone used that? And if you’ve ever picked up a Sony camera, you know you have to buy the stupidly expensive Memory Stick line instead of a standard SD card. Not only that, but there’s not just the Memory Stick, there’s also the Memory Stick PRO, Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick Pro Duo, Memory Stick Micro, Memory Stick PRO-HG, plus a handful more. Most of which are different shapes and sizes. And will only work on Sony devices. Frankly, when they started Blu-ray, I was sure the product would die, but here we are with them finally taking a victory. Now, if only they would stop using proprietary cables in all their gadgets, and get behind universal standards!