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technology formats

Tech Wars: The Formats Awaken

November 11, 2015
By Alexander N. Lucas

Sony announced this week that it was ending Betamax videocassette production, a format I assumed had been dead for nearly 25 years. This brought back a lot of memories of some of the great technological format wars of my lifetime, and a historic battle between some of the greatest inventors ever.

I remember my parents owning both VHS and Betamax players, meaning our living room was cluttered with twice as many video tapes. Around the same time, while logging on to CompuServe and playing some MUDs online, I also recall using Netscape Navigator and being subjected to the horrible, blinking websites of that era. And don’t get me started on my desk drawer in the basement with three different types of memory cards from long-unused digital cameras.

Some of the most epic technological format wars:

videocassette tapes beta vhs

Who fought: JVC (VHS) vs. Sony (Betamax)

Stakes: Control of the home media market. Losing this fight also probably kept Sony mostly on the sidelines of the high-definition format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray.

Who won: VHS

Both formats sprung up as a way to distribute movies but also to record live television. Betamax had superior visual, sound and construction, whereas VHS was less expensive and had longer recording times. Consumers quickly flocked to VHS (as did some video industries, like adult film). VHS dominated the home market until DVDs supplanted video tapes in late 2001.

war of the currents ac dc

Who fought: Thomas Edison vs. George Westinghouse and others

Stakes: The U.S. was only going to build one system to distribute electricity, and it could only support alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). 

Who won: AC

While Edison's direct current power plants popped up first, alternating current was able to transmit low power over longer distances with less power loss. The bitter war ended when Edison’s company merged with an AC competitor, Thomson-Houston, to form a new company, General Electric. Both formats are still used today, though. Many internal electronics use DC, though their external cord adapters use AC. DC is also used in some generators and in bulk transmission.

internet browser war

Who fought: Microsoft (Internet Explorer) vs. Netscape (Navigator)

Stakes: A race to display primitive websites that frequently featured hideous blinking graphics. This war had a huge impact on developing Web standards.

Who won: Internet Explorer reined for many years, though it only accounts for 10-15 percent of Web traffic now

Netscape Navigator improved upon an earlier browser, Mosaic, and became the dominant browser by 1995. Best of all for consumers, it was free. Navigator and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer began to introduce competing, incompatible feature releases to their browsers. Since Internet Explorer came bundled and was the default option with Windows, it didn't take long for Microsoft to push Netscape aside. America Online bought Netscape in 1998 and Internet Explorer achieved market dominance in 2002 with a staggering 96 percent market share. The remains of Navigator continue in the projects of Mozilla and Firefox.

blu-ray hd-dvd high definition discs

Who fought: Toshiba (HD-DVD) vs. Philips (Blu-ray) 

Stakes: The winner would become the successor to the DVD ... only to quickly lose out to digital streaming.

Who won: Blu-ray, though it hasn’t been an unqualified success

In the early 2000s both HD-DVD and Blu-ray were developed to provide high-definition content for home media. By 2006, when both of these players went to market, they had each made deals with roughly half the distribution and hardware companies, making the competition a real battle.

With the Beta vs. VHS confusion fresh in their minds, other stakeholders made several attempts to broker a resolution to this format war. While several companies switched sides, Sony dealt the death blow to HD-DVD  when it included Blu-ray drives in the new PlayStation 3. It probably didn't hurt that Sony is also a major film distributor. In 2008 Toshiba threw in the towel and stopped supporting HD-DVD. It wasn't much of a victory for Sony, however, since sales of physical discs have dropped each year since 2012.

photo memory cards

Who fought: Compact Flash (SanDisk), SmartMedia (Toshiba), SD (SD Association), Memory Stick and M2 (Sony), xD (Fujifilm) and others

Stakes: Since memory cards have different physical sizes, they only work in computers or cameras designed for the specific model. The profusion of incompatible types resulted in absurd contraptions like the own shown above.

Who won: SD and Compact Flash

As every manufacturer made their own digital cameras, they all also made different memory cards to store the photos. Of course, this meant you could only insert the cards into computers with a compatible memory card slot, which propelled a new market for universal card readers with slots to fit all the formats.

Initially most of these formats were different primarily in terms of their physical dimensions. Now SD is primarily used and is a cheaper format. Compact Flash has a higher transfer rate and is sturdier, but is found mostly in high-end DSLR cameras.

Final thoughts

  • Sony seems to be a major player in a lot of these format wars, frequently on the losing side.
  • In general, lower price and simplicity has been the deciding factor, not quality of the product format.
  • Companies have historically shown poor ability to predict the winners, and wind up losing a lot of money in research, development and marketing on dead-end formats

Did we miss your favorite format war? Do you have comments about how these skirmishes affected you? Please leave a comment and check out some of these other great articles.

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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