There are many important decisions that shape our lives and by which we judge other people. Coke or Pepsi? Rolling Stones or Beatles? New York or LA? Cats or dogs? iPod or Zune? That last one was pretty easy for the vast majority of people. The competition between two titans of the technology industry to be the music player in your back pocket should have been a heated battle that raged for years. Instead, Microsoft’s Zune never achieved more than 10% of the market, taking two years to sell as many units as Apple sold in a month. A few short years later, the Zune was quietly shuffled off to the format war graveyard.
As long as we have had media on which to record our art, there have been competing formats. While more modern examples like Betamax vs VHS or Blu-ray vs HD DVD may leap to mind, format wars go back as far as the days of Thomas Edison and the first audio media, wax cylinders. The first format war was between Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner, both of whom invented competing types of media for the phonograph. Edison first pioneered the wax cylinder in the 1880s. He originally intended it as a means of recording telephone conversations, but the cylinders soon became a popular format for musical recordings. In the following decade, Berliner released the disk record, the shape we’re familiar with today. Disks had originally been used solely in children’s toys, and in the beginning their sound quality was poor. Frighteningly, terrifyingly poor. Look on YouTube for the first talking dolls. Chucky had nothing on these girls.
But, after several technical modifications, disc records were able to rival Edison’s cylinders in sound quality, sparking a format war that would last nearly 20 years. Despite the cylinder’s initial dominance, disk records won out in the end, and by the late 1920s, even Edison had started marketing his own disk records. The production process was the main decider. Disk records were much cheaper and easier to make, since they could simply be stamped out on a press. This helped make them cheaper, and once they started being recorded on both sides, people were able to get twice the music for the same price. Not only that, but disk records were easier to ship, and consumers liked the fact that they could easily be stacked and stored on a shelf like books. This victory doesn’t mean that there weren’t drawbacks to the familiar frisbee format. The sound quality tended to be a bit tinnier than a cylinder, and disk records could easily get damaged after being played enough times.
You might think records remained unchanged until cassette tapes crept up behind them in 1963, but there were many types within that genre, each hoping to gain traction. There was the ½” Edison diamond disc, which used “hills and dales” instead of grooves and would be destroyed by the tone arm needle of a standard record player. There was such an animal as 16-⅔ RPM records. They were half the speed of the 33 1/3 RPM albums that were the traditional standard for recorded music and only at the height of their availability could you get a record player with a speed setting to play that would allow you to play them. Because most 16s had a large spindle hole and were 7″ in diameter, many of them were mistaken for 45 RPMs. There was no true standard size and they were also manufactured to be 9, 10, or 12 inches in diameter.
16 RPM records were too slow for proper high fidelity sound, so they were used mostly for the spoken word. Radio stations would use them for pre-recorded radio shows containing interviews or narration. More frequently they became the first “Talking Books” for the blind.
16-⅔ RPMs also found a niche in cars, of all places. Chrysler created Highway Hi-Fi, an audio format that enabled the 16 RPM records to be played in their cars from 1956 to 1958. The system employed a sapphire stylus with a ceramic pick up on a turntable that was installed below the instrument panel. Combine these narrow niches with the short span of Highway Hi-Fi and you get a picture of the *lack of widespread commercial success for the 16s.
When 8-track tapes hit the shelves in the latter part of the ‘60’s, it was seen as a revelation. No longer subject to what was playing on the radio, you could listen to your music collection in your car, or out-and-about with the new boomboxes. Developed by jet manufacturer William Lear, the 8-track cartridge contained a length of 1/4 inch tape, wound around a single hub, which rans in a continuous loop. The tape was divided along its length into 8 channels or tracks, hence the name. The tape head played two tracks at a time to achieve stereo. A metal sensing strip connected the ends of the tape; when the tape reaches the end of a program, the metal strip connected with a solenoid in the player, causing the trademark click or clunk sound of the playback head shifting across the tape to continue playing. If you had enough electricity and nothing broke, an 8-track could theoretically play forever. People reveled in their new freedom and speculated that 8-tracks would even replace the vinyl record. The format got a real boost from Ford, who, by 1967, made 8-track players an option for all their models. 8-tracks were the way of the future! Turns out, they barely made it a decade. Introduced in 1965, their popularity waned sharply after 1975 when the neon 80’s dawned 8-tracks had already been relegated to trash bins and garage sale two-for-a-quarter boxes. Whereas vinyl and other formats have always maintained a hard-core following, apart from a few outliers, there really is no one fighting to bring back 8-tracks.
Is the buying public truly that fickle? Well, there were legitimate reasons the passionate love affair with the new portable medium fizzled out. The primary reason the 8-track became extinct was because it was patently unreliable. They simply weren’t built to last and subsequently earned a reputation as being ticking time bombs. Brand new, 8-tracks often sounded good, and the tapes themselves were extremely hard-wearing, never melting in the heat. It was the internal components of the cartridge that failed with time, owing to cost-saving cheap construction. There is room to criticize the car stereos’ construction as well, as they had a real tendency to eat the tapes, and always during the best part of your favorite song.
Remember in the liner notes for a cassette tape seeing a message that one side of the tape may be longer than the other to preserve album continuity? No, just me? Anyway, with 8-tracks, the layout of songs on the original medium not lining up with the new medium means that it was quite common for a song on the 8-track to fade out and fade back in as it transitioned to a new track. So right in the middle of the song, it would go quiet. Some 8-tracks avoided this by changing the order of the songs on the album so the transition point would fall between songs.
As cool as the idea of the tape playing endlessly may be, the design of 8-tracks meant that you couldn’t rewind them. Did your friend talked over your favorite lyric? Guess you’ll have to wait for that song to come around again. There was also a phenomenon called bleed-through. If the playback heads became misaligned even slightly, the one track would bleed-through into another track, leaving you with, at best, a faint background of a different song. Less damning but still reflecting poorly on the 8-track is that while the cartridges could withstand considerable abuse, the album art was just stickers that cracked, faded and peeled with frustrating rapidity.
The fatal blow to 8-tracks was a simple one – cost. Cassette tapes were just plain cheaper than 8-tracks. If the 8-track had been a skosh more reliable, and had stayed around long enough to work out some of the kinks, it might have stood a chance, but since the 8-track was under-delivering, all it took was a competing product being just a couple dollars cheaper.
Bonus fact: The first karaoke machine was an 8-track player. In 1971, Daisuke Inoue built a wooden box that combined a microphone, amplifier, coin box, and an 8-track tape player, which he called the 8-Juke and sadly for his descendants, never patented. The work karaoke means “empty orchestra.”
Listeners of a certain age will remember TV commercials for movies your could own and watch in the comfort of your own home that ended with two different prices, one for VHS and one for Betamax, back when the phrase “sorry, no COD” began to crop up. For the youngsters out there, COD meant cash on delivery, a system under which you ordered stuff and you paid for it at the post office when you picked it up. Companies stopped doing it because people would order things and never collect and pay for them. In the early 80’s, two companies fought a pitched battle for home video dominance – Sony with its Betamax format and JVC with VHS. No spoilers, but VHS won.
The Sony Betamax video cassette recorder was the first on the market in the US by nearly two years. Released in 1975, it weighed a monstrous 36 pounds and cost the equivalent of $1300. No, wait, that’s the original price. It cost $6,000 in 2018 money, the same as my last car. Individual tapes, which could be used to record shows off TV, cost about $15 each, or about $70 now. Recording television shows was a revolutionary concept at the time. Prior to the Betamax you had to watch a show when it was broadcast or not at all. The entertainment industry felt quite threatened. Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions filed a lawsuit in 1976 to halt the sale of the Betamax, claiming that film and TV producers would lose millions of dollars from unauthorized duplication and distribution of their copyrighted content. They made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1979, where five justices allowed home recording. This was the case that Mr. Rogers testified in, on behalf of children who may be in school when his show is aired.
Both Betamax and VHS video cassette recorders machines solved the same problem: How to store information compactly on a tape. I’ll do my best to explain how they work in this non-visual medium. The machine pulls the tape forward to a spinning silver drum. The drum has two electromagnets, called heads, arranged on opposite sides of the drum that read the magnetic information on the tape. That rotating head allowed for a more compact recorder. Previous attempts at VCRs had magnetic heads didn’t move, only the tape moved. Because there was a limit to how fast the tape could move, you needed a lot of tape, about a seven inch reel to record an hour, which means that a movie would need two 7-inch reels inside a cassette. No one wanted cassettes that were more than a foot across, so the rotating heads made home VCRs possible.
The machines were quite similar in function and Betamax had quite a fanbase, owing to better image quality and better-constructed machines. Betamax was arguably the superior format, with higher resolution (250 lines vs. 240 lines), superior sound, and a more stable image, as well as a better constructed machine. So why did Betamax lose? First, the VHS machine was a good 5 lbs lighter than the Betamax. That’s a huge difference for a mass manufactured product. It impacts everything from material costs to assembly time to shipping costs. This meant that JVC’s machines could be cheaper than Sony’s Betamax. Second, the earliest Betamax tapes played for only one hour, VHS played for 2 hours, enough time for a movie. RCA was also planning a home video format in the mid-70’s, to be called “SelectaVision MagTape,” but canceled it after hearing rumors about Betamax. Also, they wanted a minimum tape length of 4 hours, supposedly because it was the length of an American football game, but to achieve this with the technology at the time degraded the picture quality too much. Bonus fact: the average American football game contains less than 11 minutes of game play and over 100 commercials. Literally more ads than plays.
Betamax peaked in sales in 1984 and it was all downhill from there. The ultimate killer of Betamax was the rental market. While Betamax focused in its corporate energy into ads focusing on the freedom to “Watch whatever, whenever,” which they referred to as time-shifting, JVC created relationships with the nascent video rental industry. As this market grew, VHS dominated in titles. For a while, you could find both formats in stores, retailers began giving more shelf space to the slightly more dominant brand, which then dominated even more. Not to date myself, but this reminds me of when I worked at Blockbuster in my first year of college, just as DVDs were beginning to erode VHS’s ubiquity. Ah, those halcyon days of having to put on pants and shoes and leave the house if you wanted to see a movie, getting 15 minutes in, realizing it’s crap, and being uncertain what to do with the rest of your evening.
Betamax limped along a lot longer than I had prepared to expect when I started my research. Though I personally hadn’t seen once since my trade school’s journalism lab in 1994, production of Betamax recorders continued until 2002. The last tapes rolled off the production line in March 2016, the same year that the last VCR was manufactured. Beta may have lost market dominance, but you’ve got to give it to them for staying power.
Much of this section was sourced from Bill Hammack, the EngineerGuy. He has a great YouTube channel, particularly the video on the evolution of the aluminum soda can. I know that doesn’t sound scintillating, but check it out.
There was a third horse in the home video race that almost everyone know about but almost everyone forgets – laserdisc. Magnavox trotted out their own in-home entertainment in 1978 called “DiscoVision.” Not disc-o-vision, disco like as if no one had turned on a radio in the last few years. DiscoVision essentially just encoded analog data onto a disc, which was read off via a laser. This new technology had drastically better picture and audio quality than both VHS and Betamax. It was also capable of storing multiple audio tracks, allowing for things like director’s commentary and the like to be added. The discs themselves were easier and, in theory, cheaper to manufacture. DiscoVision players cost $700, about $2300 today, but they still sold out quickly in the test market of Atlanta. The first movie to be released on “DiscoVision” was Jaws. The name laserdisc would come from Pioneer when they offered a player for the discs a few years later. Pioneer managed to get the price for theirs down to about $500 (about $1500 today). Getting celebrities like Ray Charles and Mr. Wizard (Bill Nye for old folks) to pitch their product, LaserDisc was on the upswing.
As with Beta, cost put the kibosh on laserdisc. The LaserDisc player was technologically complex and quite bulky, making it comparatively expensive to manufacture and ship.
Another big issue was storage. The LaserDisc stored the video and audio in analog form, rather than digitally like a dvd, and that lack of compression combined with a large frame rate resulted in initial discs only being able to store 30 minutes of video per side of the disc. Even later analog models only got as high as 1 hr per side. This meant that, like a record, you had to get up regularly to turn the it over or swap it out for the next one, after which, it also took about 20-30 seconds for the half pound disc to spin back up to full speed before it could start playing again. While technically the LaserDiscs could have been drastically cheaper to make vs. videocassettes, the sheer volume of tapes being sold brought their price to manufacture down to $1 apiece by the end of the 1980s, while one LaserDisc cost about $5 to make at this time. A new release movie would cost $35-$40 (about $70-$80 today) whereas the same movie on VHS was half that. Yet another significant advantage of VHS was the ability to record shows. While it was technically possible to put such a recording feature into a LaserDisc player, no manufacturer ever chose to offer such a thing, and the discs themselves would have been quite expensive to buy anyway compared to the price videocassettes ultimately dropped to thanks to their huge market share. VHS were also more durable. The slightest scratch would be death to a laserdisc while a VHS could be dropped on the rec room floor a number of times without suffering injury. Adding to this, poor manufacturing quality of early discs meant that they were also susceptible to “disc rot,” oxidation of the reflective layer of the disc, resulting in blobs or constellations of discoloration. This can happen with your DVDs and CDs, too, so handle them properly and store them upright, not lying flat.
Laserdisc did find staying power in some areas, though. It was the superior format in situations where a particular VHS tape might be watched countless times, like at school, which is the only place I’ve been in the same room as one. And laserdisc is the direct progenitor of the disc media we use today, so you put respect on its name, as the kids used to say. While you’re at it, put respect on the names of Charles, Michael, Seth, Nathan, Council of Geeks and Adam Bomb, our Patreon patron. They help me cover the costs of doing the podcast, like the website and server hosting and my replacement mic, which allows me to keep bringing stupifying science, hilarious history and fabulous fact every week. Two of them even get their YBOF fix early. Even a dollar a month is helpful. That’s less than 25 cents an episode, cheaper than a trip of Richmond’s ironically-named Nickel Bridge. If you’d rather offer financial support once rather than in an ongoing way, you’ll find a Paypal button on the front page of yourbrainonfacts.com. The very best way to help the show is to share it with people who also like to feed their heads. Tip them off to our FB or IG/yourbrainonfacts or T/brainonfactspod. You can probably share this episode with your friends and followers right from your podcast app; try swiping up on the screen to reveal sharing options.
Someone should have told the folks at Sony to get used to failed formats, because they company seems to have more than their share. In the mid-1980’s, Sony introduced the Digital Audio Tape as a digital successor to the regular analog cassette tape for consumers, combining spinning-head technology from video tape machines and digital-encoding. For a time, they were the standard audio format for things like bands submitting their work to record labels or radio stations for consideration. DATs were controversial, with the Recording Industry Assoc. Of America lobbying to prevent DAT machines being sold in the U.S. on the grounds it would facilitate high-res album copying. DATs never really caught on with consumers, thanks partly to expensive players. Sony officially killed the format in 2005, having been overtaken by recordable CDs without having ever lived up to the success of cassettes.
1993 saw the launch of two soon-to-fail products: Minidisc and ATRAC Audio Compression. Minidiscs seemed to solve the obvious issues inherent in both cassettes and CDs. Unlike cassettes, the quality was crystal clear, it wouldn’t warp in heat or be damaged by its player, and the quality didn’t degrade each time it was recorded over. It was less likely to be damaged than a CD and didn’t skip when the player was agitated. That was quite appealing to those of us who picked our jacket based on it having pockets big enough for our DiscMan. Though they could’ve been successful, Sony sadly added stern digital copy protection, and that, combined with high media prices and the steep cost of buying a player/recorder meant it never took off. Sony developed ATRAC as a proprietary file type for the Minidisc and a solid-state Walkmen much later. It took until 2004 for them to offer the Network Walkmen, which supported MP3s, which had well since taken off. Proprietary loses to open standard again, but that didn’t teach them.
In 1998, Sony developed the MemoryStick, which could only be used with their digital cameras and music players, as an attempt at an additional revenue stream for the company. If you wanted to buy a Sony camera, you had to spend more money on media for it. Though some devices still use it, Sony had to concede to the rocketing popularity of SD cards and begin supporting them.
In 2005, Sony took some of its miniDisc thinking into the design of the UMB or Universal Media Disc, for movies and games for the PlayStation Portable. The size of the media had a direct affect on the design of the PlayStation Portable, making it bulkier than it otherwise needed to be. UMD’s never saw widespread support from movie studios and production of UMD movies was significantly cut back the following year. The successor console, the PSP Go, ditched the UMD for digital-only media.
Speaking of movies, while the echoes of the great Beta vs VHS still resonated, a new home video format war was about to kick off – Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD. Like Betamax, Toshiba’s HD-DVD had a viewing experience at least as good as its competitor and was the first to step into the ring…and the first to leave. Once again, titans of the industry were involved: Sony came armed with Blu-ray side and Toshiba had HD DVD, with the PS3 and Xbox 360 ready to serve as Trojan horses and emerging internet-streaming looming in the distance like the White Walkers from Game of Throne.
Sony promised its Blu-ray format could handle capacity (50GB) and even interactivity (BD-J) that we’d never seen before, while Toshiba claimed HD DVD would make up for 20GB less capacity in other areas, like being cheaper and easier to manufacture with plants that were already making DVDs. As for content, major studio support weighed heavily in Blu-ray’s favor, whereas only Universal stood in HD DVD’s corner. That alone would have been enough to deliver Sony a decisive victory. Once Warner Bros. dropped support for HD DVD on the eve of the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, the war was over; Toshiba conceded mere month later. Sony had successfully pushed Blu-ray into millions of homes with its PlayStation 3, even though the PS3 trailed the Xbox 360 and Wii in sales during the early days of the console war (console wars being a rich enough topic that I didn’t include any video games in this list). Sony had made HD discs standard for the PS3, as opposed to an optional add-on, that led to a hardware gap HD DVD could never surmount.
But victory isn’t all milk and honey. While Blu-ray format prevailed, it never quite turned into the cash cow its backers originally predicted. DVD still reigns supreme as the primary physical movie-delivery format, and it’s being squeezed out of relevance on the other end by the rise of video on-demand and streaming. It could be worse though, as Toshiba is suffering the indignity of selling Blu-ray players of its own and facing the same declining PC and TV sales that have hit and crippled Sony.
There was another format introduced in the mid-aughts that didn’t do well enough to compete, but deserves to be in this gallery of failures – Flexplay or EZ-D. Like renting movies but hate returning them? Good news, everyone! Like having a limited time to watch those movies and being left with a bunch of inert, unplayable discs laying around? Maybe not such good news then. Like the failed DIVX before it, Flexplay discs would turn black and become unreadable after 48 hours, though at least Flexplay had the sense to work in standard players rather than requiring its own machine and to be hooked up to a phone line to communicate with a main DIVX server. (DIVX was created by Circuit City, just one of many decisions that precipitated their demise.) Neither DIVX nor Flexplay discs had any special features, just the movie. The technology was originally intended as an alternative means for the short-term rental of newly released movies. For those of my gentle listener too young to remember, you were only allowed to rent new release movies for two days. If I have any listeners who’ve viewed this as an archeology lecture, at me on Twitter, brainonfactspod. *Except these weren’t new releases. For fear of Flexplay taking away from sales of DVDs, the only movies released on it were at least two months old, by which time most people who wanted to see a particular movie already had. The 48 hour countdown timer wasn’t based on the first time you pressed play, but rather when the package was opened. Flexplay discs were shipped in a vacuum-sealed package. A clear dye inside the disc, contained within the bonding resin of the disc, would react with oxygen once the package was opened. The dye layer turned black in about 48 hours, rendering the disc unplayable. If unopened, the shelf life of the sealed package was said to be “about a year”. The DVD plastic also has a red dye in it, which prevents penetration of the disc by blue lasers of the DVD players that were on the horizon at the time. The manufacturer claimed the discs were recyclable, but environmental groups condemned intentionally making so much of a disposable version of a durable product, and you had to take it back to the store for recycling. Consumers responded to the concept with yawns. The brand limped along for a few years, being bought and sold by different companies, like Disney, HowStuffWorks, and Staples, which clearanced them out for $.99 each less than a year later.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. I’ll leave you with a format war you may have forgotten is even going on: iPhone vs Android, which TIME described as “a war between two fundamentally different visions for the future of computing, described in simplistic terms as closed vs. open.” Apple’s model is based on the company having complete control over its hardware and software, while Google has generally invited developers and consumers to try their own hands at making better Android products. One way that the companies have secured their status of having a good, old-fashioned format war is by enthusiastically suing each other over patents. In 2011, for example, both Apple and Google “spent more on patent litigation and intellectual property than on research and development” for the first time ever. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.