Tower of 'techno' Babel
As format wars rage between audio players, videogames, and DVD players, consumers get caught in the crossfire.
A battle has been brewing in Aisle 30 here at Fry's electronics superstore. This is where videogames and the machines that play them are sold. Friday, Sony fires the first shot into American living rooms, releasing the PS3, the latest in the PlayStation videogame console franchise.Skip to next paragraph
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On Sunday, Nintendo fights back with the widely anticipated, new Wii. Eager fans have been lining up for weeks to get a pre-purchase ticket, while others have camped out on sidewalks and in parking lots to be first in line.
If you're thinking, "So what?" You don't need a PS3 (your teenager's PS2 is holding up just fine) and you don't even know what a Wii is – think again.
This is just the latest skirmish in what weary consumers have come to know as the format wars. If you watch DVDs, listen to digital music, talk on a cellphone, turn on a computer – in fact do just about anything electronic – you're a foot soldier in the fight over which format will win your dollars.
Just this week, Microsoft makes a bid to overtake Apple's iPod with the sale of its new Zune portable media player, which takes digital listening a step further by allowing users to send music and other files from device to device.
And in case you doubt the impact of the Sony-Nintendo dust-up, Sony is using the PS3 game console to champion a new DVD format, the Blu-ray standard, which competes with the other new high-capacity DVD format known as HD. Just as VHS won out over Beta in the old videotape wars, only one format will dominate.
This is a war that never seems to end. In fact, every round raises the stakes. The PS3 will retail for either $499 or $599 (depending on extras), nearly twice the previous version's price.
What are beleaguered buyers to do? Why can't we all just get along, and how can the average consumer fight back?
Money is the main engine driving the format wars, says Stephen Jacobs, assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. "If you set the standard," he says, as Apple has with the iPod, "you get the cash cow."
The relentless drive to upgrade, overtake, or replace the competition has led to a dizzying number of choices in everything from digital cameras to MP3 players to personal computers. If it's not new features, it's hipper fads that keep most of us on a treadmill of constantly replacing our personal electronics.
Market forces aren't all bad. Competition helps drive innovation, says John Davison, senior vice president of the Ziff Davis Media Group. "You need competition to help keep people honest creatively."
However, actually winning the war can be a complicated process. Engineers are notoriously uncooperative when it comes to agreeing on technical standards. Beyond that, creating the best product doesn't guarantee success, as history has shown. Sony's Betamax videotape was much sharper than VHS, but technical and strategic moves doomed the format.
Early Beta tapes didn't hold a full two-hour movie. Sony also insisted on family- friendly content. Once the burgeoning adult entertainment industry adopted VHS, Beta was permanently marginalized.