The History of Format Wars and How Sony Finally Won... For Now

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The History of Format Wars and How Sony Finally Won... For Now

Media format wars are about as old as recorded sound. The latter half of the 19th century saw the invention of the microphone, and shortly after that came inventions to record the signals generated from sound; Thomas Edison with the wax cylinder and Emile Berliner with his discs. This all took place decades before Sony appeared. Still, to understand why Sony struggled to win the format wars to come, we must first see understand why an innovation giant like Thomas Edison failed.

Both camps had aggressive marketing campaigns, advancements in technology, and signed exclusive contracts with music artists. But discs ruled recorded sound more than any other format in the 20th century due to the low price of media. Mass production put gramophones in living rooms, and Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder became history.

Skipping ahead a bit, Sony came to be an electronics shop in Japan just following the second World War. Over their initial few decades they became the first in Japan to create a tape recorder, and their high quality and portable transistor radios expanded their market globally. Through seven decades they’ve led the industry in improving audio/video fidelity, portability, and immersion.

Yet not every innovation was a success. Even more strangely, it would take decades and many new media formats before Sony could claim its win. By taking a look at the biggest media format wars, we can watch and figure out how Sony finally won the Format Wars.

Betamax vs. VHS

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When you mention “Format War”, most will remember the battle between Sony’s Betamax videotapes and JVC’s VHS. Like the audio battle mentioned above, both sides of this war had aggressive marketing campaigns.

While both technologies had their pros and cons, the fight over which format was “better” expanded beyond their creators and came down to the device owners.

In This Corner: Betamax

Sony’s first Betamax machines appeared in the US and Japan in 1975. The common belief about Betamax is that the picture is vastly superior to that of VHS. While technically true, the first devices only recorded 60 minutes of high quality video. By the time VHS finished rolling out over the next two years, Sony released a tape with comparable recording time at the expense of some quality.

Technical advantages still gave Betamax superior color, less cross-talk and a more stable image when shuttling forwards and backwards. Betamax’s visual superiority also came from the quality of the players themselves. Players and recorders were manufactured by Sony or by companies closely monitored by Sony. They wanted to create an industry standard format that would be prepared for future innovations while serving the premium home entertainment market of the time.

In That Corner: VHS

When JVC launched VHS recorders a couple years after the release of the Betamax, their format couldn’t compete with picture quality. Instead, their tapes held as much as twice as much time as a Betamax tape. Furthering the value, VHS videocassette recorders (VCRs) were far cheaper. The first ones appeared on the market for “as little as $999” (around four-thousand dollars today).

JVC licensed manufacture of their technology to anyone and created a price war within their own format. Value was also found by consumers in the length of videotapes. While Sony progressively released new technology and tapes to extend playback time, JVC did the same and Betamax never really caught up.

Who Won?

The advent of home entertainment brought about new ways for people to consume TV and movies. It frightened the movie studios so much that they attempted to shut down sales of VCRs. The MPAA argued that jvc was selling a device whose primary purpose is to record movies off television broadcasts. They also claimed it would collapse the film industry. When JVC won, movies didn’t go away. Instead, decades of back-catalogue were dropped onto VHS and Betamax (but mostly VHS) and video rental stores began popping up everywhere.

Whereas going to a movie was once a weekly or monthly event, one could now binge-watch several movies over a weekend. That excess was best served by cheaper players and longer playing tapes, so Betamax lost. The last machine was manufactured in 2015, and the last VHS recorder will roll off the assembly line this month. JVC’s VHS format won this round, but Sony would not forget…

VHS-C vs. Video8

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By the mid-80s, Sony was behind VHS in the home entertainment market and losing ground quickly. When they introduced Video8 camcorders to the market, VHS-C compact tapes had already been around for a few years. Even so, Sony wasn’t prepared to lose again.

In This Corner: VHS-C

Not content to leave recording in the living room, people wanted to make their own movies. The generation before made home movies on 8mm film that needed to developed, processed, then played back on a projector with no sound. When JVC allowed consumers to create their own home movies complete with audio, they made a 45-minute compact yet compatible tape format to VHS.

Using an adaptor, a VHS-C tape could be put into your VCR and played on your television screen within seconds of recording. With this technology in hand, parents started lining the aisles of school recitals recording choir performances. Vacations were taped and played back at length. Amature filmmakers could cut their teeth on a portable format and give rise to a new generation of independent movie directors.

In That Corner: Video8

Out of the gate, Video8 beat VHS-C in one key property; tape length. A standard tape could record two hours of video and audio; almost three times that of VHS-C. Video quality was comparable between the two, but since Sony wasn’t concerned with backwards compatibility they changed how audio was recorded leading to superior quality.

Convenience and comfort was another way the smaller Video8 tapes excelled. A Sony camcorder could fit in the palm of your hand, while VHS-C and other formats were bulky and often needed a shoulder or tripod to get a clean, stable shot.

Who Won?

Well, both really. The competition between the two drove advancements in technology. Sony still made premium camcorders, but always priced a few models low to compete. Tape length was less of a factor as the cost of media came down to the point where consumers bought multipacks of tapes to have them on hand.

Video8 gave way to Hi8 with better video and audio fidelity, as VHS-C gave way to S-VHS-C for the same reasons. Alternative formats challenged them, but market-share was largely split between Video8 and VHS-C. By the year 2000 digital video formats like Digital8 and DV began to replace their older, analogue counterparts. Sony still needed a clear victory.

Super Audio CD vs. DVD-A

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At the turn of the century, Compact Discs (CDs) completely dominated music sales. Audiophiles appreciated the clean audio but longed for the fidelity of analogue sound. Digital audio reproduction on CDs barely matches the limit of human perception, so two competing formats attempted to dominate the premium audio market.

In This Corner: Super Audio CD

Sony steps up again. This time partnering with Compact Disc patent-holder Phillips. CDs have all their data written on the bottom of the disc. Super Audio CD (SACD) used a second layer deeper in the disc to store additional data.

Against Sony’s usual trend, they created a format that could be backwards compatible. Most SACDs are manufactured in such a way that they will play in any standard CD player, but high-end entertainment systems could read that additional data and add surround sound, higher frequency range and longer playback.

In That Corner: DVD-Audio

Created parallel to the DVD-Video specification, DVD-Audio (DVD-A) was proposed as a consumer-level media format for sophisticated audio. Developed by the DVD Forum group of media manufacturers (of which Sony was a founding member), DVD-A supported digital audio up to 24-bits, up to 192 kHz, surround sound and longer playback than audio CDs.

Though the discs weren’t compatible with older CD players, they did have tracks built in making them playable on any standard set-top DVD-Video player. It was assumed that upcoming DVD-Video as a dominant home video format would give DVD-Audio a way into home entertainment systems and popularize the format.

Who Won?

In this case, nobody won. Even though one was backwards compatible and the other was future-proof, there just wasn’t enough of a market to take high-fidelity digital audio into the mainstream market. Some blame the simultaneous appearance of Peer-to-peer networks like Napster, or the rise of digital music sales a few years later. Maybe it was just because Sony had their hands in both pots.

HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray Disc

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DVD-Video, on the other hand, quickly dominated the home video market. Less than ten years after the format debuted, mass-produced VHS movies ceased to exist. There were some attempts to dethrone DVD but few technologies ever made a dent. Even so, a new media format was needed once HDTVs started to appear in living rooms. So once again, Sony got involved.

In This Corner: HD-DVD

Toshiba was the primary company behind HD-DVD, which is best described as DVD-Video 2.0. The same video and audio compression can be found on HD-DVD that exist on DVD-Video, though a few features were added. Many of the programming and interface bugs are fixed. There’s support for higher quality compression, more audio channels, more languages, internet connectivity and even interactive applications using Java. Discs store more than three times as much data, but are exactly the same dimensions as DVDs (and CDs).

Similar to Super Audio CDs, the disc supports stamping a backwards compatible DVD-Video layer on one side of the disc and HD-DVD on the other. This allowed consumers to play the movie on new players or old. Even the behind-the-scenes manufacturing process was backwards compatible. Factories that had invested millions of dollars in DVD stamping machines needed only a few upgrades to be able to start producing HD-DVDs.

In That Corner: Blu-ray Disc

Once again, Sony enters the fray. From a software standpoint, Blu-ray is very similar to HD-DVD. They both support the same video and audio compression, numerous audio channels and languages, internet connectivity, and Java applications. Aside from dimensions, the disc technology was not very similar to DVD discs, so manufacturers needed to buy all new equipment.

Blu-ray was designed to be future-proof and can today can store more data than ten DVDs. They are considered the premium format for 4K home entertainment, but this battle was won long before UHDTV graced our living rooms.

Who Won?

Sony wasn’t ready to do anything less than decisively win this format war. Like Thomas Edison’s wax cylinders, Sony signed exclusive content deals with 20th Century Fox, Walt Disney Pictures, and Sony’s own Columbia Pictures. Blockbusters like Spider-Man were only available in HD on Blu-ray. Toshiba also signed major studios to exclusive deals. As a result, market adoption of HD stalled. Consumers weren’t ready to commit to one format or the other if they couldn’t get all the movies they wanted. No one wanted to invest in a 21st century equivalent of Betamax. Some believed that a hybrid player would eventually come out, but Sony had other plans.

While both HD-DVD and Blu-ray players were still priced more than $800, Sony put a Blu-ray drive in their new, third-generation PlayStation console. Blu-ray allowed for much larger games than the Xbox 360 could offer with DVD media. More importantly, at US$499 the PlayStation 3 undercut every other player (including other Blu-ray players) by hundreds of dollars.

Sony lost money on sales of the PlayStation 3; by some estimates more than $300 per unit. However, getting Blu-ray players into living rooms vastly changed the production of home entertainment. One by one, film studios moved to Blu-ray. Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, and finally Paramount Pictures all announced they would stop producing HD-DVDs.

Sony Wins… For Now

Thomas Edison created brilliant inventions and was an exceptional (if sometimes dirty) businessman, but even he couldn’t always win media format wars. After two decades of fighting, Edison’s company began to manufacture the competing disc-based systems.

Following four decades of failures and not-quite-successes, Sony finally dominated a format war. Once again they had a technically superior format, but that’s not what won them the day. They employed cutthroat exclusive content deals like Edison, but that didn’t work either. In the end it came down to cost.

When the movie studios initially only saw the neck-in-neck player sales between HD-DVD and Blu-ray. When they added in the 1.8 million money-losing PS3s, it was clear that Blu-ray was in more living rooms. They became the consumers choice early in the war by producing the cheapest players, even though they were losing hundreds of dollars for every unit sold. Their change in strategy secured dominance over the long term.

Content has become separated from physical media and gone online. There are many battles still to be fought and the battlefield is more diverse than ever. Every media format war had its two main combatants accompanied by several smaller, wildly unsuccessful formats (who remembers Philips’ Video 2000?). Meanwhile, a look at downloadable video gives us iTunes vs. Google Play vs. UltraViolet vs. etc. as players. Digital music streaming gives us options like Spotify vs. Tidal vs. Pandora vs. etc.

The market may come to accept multiple streaming and download formats coexisting as we saw with camcorder formats. Or, one may become the dominant choice for the vast majority of movie and music lovers. Whatever happens, two things are certain: First, it’s likely that the cheapest solution will win. Second, Sony will be involved.

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