The Frustration of Format Wars

Toshiba HD DVD players soon will be scarce. The company last week conceded the high-definition disc market to Sony's Blu-ray. HD DVD users may be left high and dry.
Toshiba HD DVD players soon will be scarce. The company last week conceded the high-definition disc market to Sony's Blu-ray. HD DVD users may be left high and dry. (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Last week, HD DVD was unceremoniously exiled to the Island of Misfit Toys. This high-definition video format, which movie studios and electronics manufacturers rejected in favor of the competing Blu-ray disc, will have plenty of company there.

Over just the past decade, numerous other formats -- MiniDisc, DVD-Audio and Super Audio Compact Disc -- have gone the way of HD DVD discs, backed by Toshiba, Microsoft and others.

All of them, like HD DVD, started with the backing of powerful companies in the electronics and media industries, and many tech pundits pronounced them to be inevitable upgrades.

The technologies seemed like safe bets, worth the cost of new players and discs required to get sharper pictures or richer sound at home.

But the future didn't arrive as scheduled for "early adopters." Sales slowed, other firms went with competing formats, and the developers of the losing technologies eventually had to acknowledge reality and abandon them.

Technological superiority often has little to do with how these battles end. HD DVD was not helped by the failure of its backers to exploit the format's best features -- its lower production costs, for example, didn't show up in the price of most discs -- but industry politics ultimately sank it.

Warner Bros. Entertainment's abandonment of the format in early January forced retailers to rethink the wisdom of supporting both types of discs. And after Netflix, Best Buy and Wal-Mart announced they would either stop stocking HD DVD products or promote Blu-ray, Toshiba surrendered.

That leaves hundreds of thousands of customers stuck with suddenly orphaned players. The worst consequence is yet to come: At some point, these techno-victims may have to buy Blu-ray copies of movies they purchased in HD DVD.

Readers express enormous frustration over this kind of situation. They should. Customers should not have to think like venture capitalists or industry forecasters. Companies should be able to cooperate to set basic standards.

But without some dramatic shift in the way these businesses work, they never will. Part of the reason is greed: It's too tempting for companies to try to lock in an extra revenue stream by inventing a new format that everybody must pay to use.

But you can't count out creativity. As long as technology falls short of perfection -- whatever that might be -- people will keep trying to develop better, smaller and cheaper ways to store data. These format wars aren't like the NCAA tournament; the madness never ends.

Being declared the "winner" seems a temporary honor at best. VHS trounced Betamax, but look at how fast it faded with the onset of the DVD. CDs, having long ago bumped off records and tapes, are being replaced by downloads in many households.

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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