Format Wars, Overseas Investment and Apple iPods


Over the last couple of months I have observed several items in the industry press and elsewhere which I felt had some interest and relevance to EDA bit which did not warrant dedicating an entire editorial individually.

Format Wars

As philosopher George Santayana is often quoted as saying "Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it." In the nineteen seventies there was something that some have called the "VHS-Betamax war" where two incompatible formats for video cassettes fought for market dominance.

Sony introduced the Betamax home video system in 1975. The name Betamax is derived from a Japanese word "Beta", which apparently means quality plus "Max" to imply maximum quality. Betamax was an extension of the professional and industrial U-Matic format that Sony released in 1971 in Japan. VHS (Video Home recording System) was introduced by JVC in 1976.

Consumers, content providers , duplication and distribution firms, manufacturers and others were impacted by this "war". One could hedge one's bet and invest in both technolgies, pick a horse to ride with the inherent risk that that entails or wait on the sidelines until the market decided.

Some seem to remember that Betamax was techncially superior. Both firms leaped frogged one another in terms of maximum recording time, a key metric for end user satisfaction. Eventually VHS won out. Betamax machines were considerable more expensive than VHS machines. Many people prefered to rent the VHS machines because they were cheaper and more available than the Betamax and because they feared that they would buy an expensive machine that might be obsolesced. Another major factor was that JVC was more open and aggressive in offering licensing deals.

No such war occurred in the case of the CD (Compact Disc) that was introduced in the nineteen eighties.

Representatives of major manufacturers met at the High Sierra Hotel and Casino in Lake Tahoe, NV, in 1985, to come together on a common standard for data CDs. This format was nicknamed High Sierra Format. It was later modified slightly and adopted as ISO standard 9660. CDs were initially used for audio recordings. Later CD-ROMs were introduced for software distribution and computer backups. For the computer industry CDs offered greater capacity and faster transfer speeds than the floppy.

Various formats of compact discs have been derived from the original audio CD. Specifications for these CD formats are listed in a series of books named after the color of their covers. The Red Book describes audio CDs, also called compact disc-digital audio (CD-DA).The Yellow Book describes the compact disc-read only memory (CD-ROM) format. The Orange Book is for write-once CDs (CD-WO), the photo CD and compact disc-recordable (CD-R). The Green Book describes compact disc-interactive (CD-I), and the White Book is for video CDs (CD-V).

Compact Discs were initially called WORM for write once read many. Later came the CD RW that could be written and re-written. In between these two types there is a multi-session as opposed to a single-session CD-R where different parts of the disc can be written at different times but not overwritten. Over time the speed at which CDs could be read and written increased considerably. Older CD Players may have difficulty reading discs produced from later models.

The CD was followed by the DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) which offered more capacity (~7x) that would be needed for video recording. Again there were two sides, namely Warner/Toshiba with their SD (Superdisc) and Philips/Sony with their MMCD (Multimedia CD). However, this time a compromise on the specification was reached thanks in part to intercession of Lou Gerstner then IBM CEO.

There were still two camps when it came to recording format that we can refer to as the plus (+) and the minus (-). Initially the DVD (R) were recorded once and played or read repeatable. Later re-recordable or write many times (RW) became available.

Most DVD hardware will play audio CDs and CD-ROMs whose physical dimensions are identical.

DVD+R and DVD+RW formats are supported by Philips, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Ricoh, Yamaha and others. DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM formats are supported by Panasonic, Toshiba, Apple Computer, Hitachi, NEC, Pioneer, Samsung and Sharp. There are also dual layer (DL) versions of both formats. Initially a burner would be either + or - and require corresponding media. Most late model DVD burners support multiple formats as do DVD players.

The DVD+RW Alliance is a voluntary group of personal computing manufacturers, optical storage and electronics manufacturers including Dell, Hewlett-Packard Company, MCC/Verbatim, Philips Electronics, Ricoh Company Ltd., Sony Corporation, Thomson multimedia and Yamaha Corporation. The group seeks to develop and promote a universally compatible, rewritable DVD format to enable true convergence between personal computing and consumer electronics products.

The DVD Forum is an international association of hardware manufacturers, software firms, content providers and other users of Digital Versatile Discs. The Forum's purpose is to exchange and disseminate ideas and information about the DVD Format and its technical capabilities, improvements and innovations. The DVD Forum was founded in 1995 under the original name DVD Consortium by:

Time Warner Inc.
Toshiba Corporation

In 2003 Sony introduced a multi-format DVD burner (also called a combo drive or DVD-Multi) and today many manufacturers offer multi-format DVD burners which are compatible with multiple DVD formats.

As Yogi Berra said "It's Deje Vu all over again." This time it is High Definition Television (HDTV). Obviously, people will want to record HDTV programs and content providers will want to offer pre-recorded materials (movies, videos, games) to be viewed on HDTV.

Technical standards for black-and-white television are established by the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC), the FCC engineering group formed in 1940. HDTV represents significant improvements over normal TV. HDTV has approximately twice the vertical and horizontal picture resolution of today's NTSC TV, which essentially makes the picture twice as sharp. HDTV offers an image with 720 progressive or 1080 interlaced active scan lines versus 525 lines interlaced. HDTV also has a screen ratio of 16:9 as compared with most of today's TV screens, which have a screen ratio of 4:3. HDTV offers reduced motion artifacts (i.e. ghosting, dot crawl), and 5.1 independent channels of CD-quality stereo surround sound.

Federal legislation dictates Feb. 17, 2009 as the transition date from analog to digital TV broadcasting. The bill contains a provision for a $1.5 billion digital-to-analog converter subsidy program, which will enable consumers who still own analog TVs to receive two $40 coupons towards the purchase of converters. Once the transition is complete and digital broadcasts begin, the government plans to auction off licenses for the remaining analog airwaves to wireless and broadband services, and reserve a small amount for emergency responders.

Some shows are already being broadcast in HDTV format and satellite TV providers like DirecTV and DISH Network offer some programming

There are two competing formats for the next generation of optical discs, namely, Blu-ray also known as Blu-ray Disc (BD) and HD-DVD. No, I did not misspell Blu-ray. The character "e" was intentionally left out so that the term could be registered as a trademark. Also the "r" in "ray" is not capitalized.

The technology underpinning Blu-ray is based upon the 405nm blue-violet laser that reads and writes the data. The name is a combination of "Blue" as in blue-violet and "ray" as in optical ray. The Blu-ray specification was developed by a group known as the Blu-ray Disc Founders which included Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita (Panasonic), Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, TD, Thomson and Twentieth Century Fox. This was announced in February 2002. In October 2004 the group was renamed the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) as a voluntary membership group open to any corporation or organization with an interest in creating, upholding and/or promoting the BD format. Today there are over 150 members from the computer, consumer electronics, video gaming, optical media, disc replication, authoring and content industries. The association is responsible for establishing format standards and promoting and further developing opportunities for Blu-ray Disc.

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Review Article
  • Interesting, but... February 07, 2006
    Reviewed by 'RichardP'
    The Format Wars was an interesting article in the recent EDAWeekly but compared to its length it didn't say too much new and did not take the conclusions far enough. The EDA angle at the end came accross as vaguely relevant but a bit too artificial. The large number of typos and grammatical mistakes was disappointing. Sometimes engineers are reputed to be not good communicators and unfortunately, sometimes it is true but anybody in the technical profession who was involved with design and worked with or written specifications can attest to the importance of correct language use in the technical field. In case of journalists, it is their bread and butter and the readers' expectations are high by definition.

    The Format Wars article had plenty of potential and strong relevance to our industry. Unfortunately, it somehow wasn't up to the high standard we accustomed to have in EDAWeekly.


      One person found this review helpful.

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