Sunday, November 04, 2007

Format Wars are Disservice to Consumers

Format wars – they are a menace to the consumer and everyone knows it. Well maybe not everyone; there are, of course, the money-grubbing industry players who manufacture the warring formats of various consumer media products. The electronics companies have always put their own proprietary narcissism before the good of their customers.

Format wars are the things that make consumers choose between two competing formats of a particular technology, knowing that if they should choose the ultimate loser, they will have sunk perhaps hundreds of dollars into a device that is prematurely obsolete, not because of poor design or technological prowess but because of market pressures.

The first real format war in which there was ultimately a clear winner was fought in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Video tape recorders were just becoming popular among consumers, but there were two incompatible formats, VHS and Beta. VHS, which stands for Video Home System, is a system that uses the familiar video tapes everyone is familiar with. Tapes can store up to six hours of video and audio, typically television programming.

The Beta alternative was championed by Sony and could store only five hours. But, according to most videophiles, the Beta produced better quality video and loaded faster into its player.

VHS won that battle. The Beta was relegated to the also-ran hall of fame, along with the 8-track tape. So those who invested in a Sony BetaMax player were stuck with a $700 paperweight.

For audiophiles, the late 1990s brought the beginning of a format war that is still raging. Sony’s Super Audio CD, or SACD, is competing head-to-head against the industry standard DVD-audio format. SACDs look like regular CDs but they contain very high quality sound reproduction and, typically, six channels of audio for surround sound. The discs can only be played on SACD players unless they also contain a standard CD component. These are known as hybrid discs.

The DVD-audio discs are just like DVDs and will play on any DVD player. But to get the best sound reproduction, they must be played on a proprietary DVD-audio player, which delivers uncompressed audio in six channels. DVD-audio discs also typically have some video content, such as lyrics and photos. SACD discs do not.

The latest format war that consumers are now caught in the middle of is the one being waged between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Both can produce high-definition TV pictures and surround sound audio. But you can’t play an HD-DVD disc in a Blu-Ray player and vice-versa.

Thanks to the Play Station game console, which also plays Blu-Ray discs, the Blu-Ray format has gained ground in the battle. But HD-DVD forces are not giving up. They have waged a counter offensive at Wal-Mart and Best Buy where one HD-DVD player is selling for under $100 for a limited time. The cheapest Blu-Ray player is still around $400.

Movie companies are taking sides in this battle. Most are lining up in the Blu-Ray camp, but some have opted to release their titles only in the HD-DVD format. Some release titles in both formats.

Both formats could coexist in the same market if player manufacturers would produce a hybrid player, one that will play either format. That is what has happened in the DVD-audio vs. SACD war. Several player manufacturers are now producing players that will support either format, so consumers can purchase either type of disc with the surety that whichever one ultimately loses, they can still play it.

So far, no company in the high-definition format war has waved a red flag nor offered a compromise hybrid player. Meanwhile, consumers are still waiting for things to shake out.

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