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HD DVD: Just another brick in the wall of defunct formats

Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg ponders the imminent demise of HD DVD and looks back over a long history of defunct formats.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Peace in our time

They're all born with the best of intentions, but only the strong survive.

Formats come and go. Some are barely noticed, and some die a slow, painful death. So now we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD was comparatively brief--unless you're on the losing side, stuck with a slowpoke player and a collection of HD DVD discs. I've already heard from some angry HD DVD supporters. War is tough.

If you're over 35, you probably remember the Betamax vs. VHS wars, which raged from 1975 to the late 1980s, when Sony finally surrendered and started marketing VHS machines.

Like the HD DVD-Blu-ray debacle, manufacturers divided into two camps: Beta had Sony, Toshiba, Sanyo, NEC, Aiwa, and Pioneer. An impressive lineup, but JVC, Matsushita (Panasonic), Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and Akai sided with VHS. Even when everyone said Beta was dead as a doornail in the early 1990s (long before the introduction of DVD), the format soldiered on in Japan until 2002.

Pioneer still makes Laserdisc players like this DVL-919 Pioneer Electronics

Some formats wither and die on their own--the Laserdisc wasn't competing against anything but a lack of interest. The LD was a 12-inch optical analog disc alternative to Beta and VHS. It looked like an LP-size CD. Yes, it was a better, higher-quality format than tape, and it still garnered only a small yet fanatical market base among videophiles.

The LD fared better than RCA's crippled-from-the-start CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) that came out in 1981. Marketed as "SelectaVision," the grooved, LP-like discs were fragile, and they never stood a chance against VHS tape. Still, RCA stuck to its guns for five long years before snuffing the CED in 1986. Ten years later, the Laserdisc was on its last legs when the DVD finally killed it off--the software, that is. Pioneer still sells new DVD-LD players. How's that for customer support?

DVD was unchallenged but for a brief skirmish with Divx (Digital Video Express, not to be confused with DivX). Divx was a DVD rental variant, but cheaper (a disc sold for about $5) and could be viewed only for 48 hours after its first use. Divx players could play DVDs, but standard DVD players couldn't play Divx discs. Disney, Twentieth Century Fox Film, and Paramount Pictures released their movies in the Divx format.

The Audiophiliac poses with an 8-track cartridge. Steve Guttenberg

Audio has had its own share of format wars, but it also had some remarkably stable formats. The LP has been around for 50-plus years, and you can still play the oldest LPs on a brand-new turntable.

It's starting to look like the LP will outlast the CD. But CDs are a long-running success and likewise universally playable, and most surviving cassettes are serviceable.

Analog tape formats like reel-to-reel, 8-track, and 4-track cartridges still have tiny outposts of devout followers, but the Elcaset came and went so fast, I never even heard it. Digital-tape formats like DAT and the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) barely made a dent in the public's awareness.

So how will the HD DVD fare in the format history time line? What do you think: a mere blip or an interesting diversion?