Tower of 'techno' Babel

As format wars rage between audio players, videogames, and DVD players, consumers get caught in the crossfire.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Consumers can feel helpless amid the competing choices. "All of this is like the old Mac versus PC debate," says Peter Aiken, an associate professor of information systems at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Most people are just overwhelmed by facts and features and the latest fashion, and still say, 'Just help me do it.' "

The first step in fighting back resembles a 12-step program: Understand why and when you open your wallet. Are you guided by emotion or reason, fashion or features, being first or being safe?

It also helps to grasp the difference between merely upgrading (new PS3 versus old PS2), switching to a different system (Microsoft Zune versus Apple iPod) or adventuring into new territory altogether (the Wii). "You have to approach each decision as the right kind of problem," adds Mr. Aiken.

History offers one important lesson, says Ken Colburn, president of Data Doctors Computer Services, a national chain store. "What has become clear is that it is impossible to choose a standard in the early stages of a new technology," he says. "If you don't want to take a chance on being a guinea pig, don't buy technology that is in its infancy."

Indeed, early response to the new face-off between emerging DVD standards shows that consumers have learned from being burned. New machines using either Blu-ray or HD are not selling well.

And winning can be short-lived. "There's a great deal of frustration these days with consumers," says Aiken. "They know that no matter what they do, a newer thing will come along tomorrow and blow today's new thing away."

Beyond that, consumers are getting tired of products that are rushed to market before the kinks are fully worked out.

Buying a previous generation of the product solves that problem, says Aiken, who also is a productivity consultant. "More people are purposely buying last year's model because it's cheaper and it's proven itself."

Back in Fry's Aisle 30, wary gaming fans already display their own survival tactics.

"I'm leaning toward the PS3," says teenager Marianne Miller. It has the games she likes, but she's not even trying to buy it right away. "Not enough good games out yet, and I'm not going to wait in line." A data-entry specialist from Pinon Hills, Calif., she and her friend Cayla Lott compensate for a lack of cash with knowledge.

One of Ms. Miller's pet peeves: manufacturers who release products with bugs. "I wouldn't buy anything from Microsoft until it's been out for at least a year," she says, pointing to last year's holiday must-have, the Xbox 360.

"Half the first models fried out right away and had to be replaced," Miller continues. "Microsoft was just too hot to beat everybody else, so they put it out too fast and blew it."

Ms. Lott, who also is a serious videogame player, says she's not so sure about the PS3 and has her own strategy for making the decision. She points to her friend and says with a laugh, "I'll just play hers 'til I decide."

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