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CTA Centennial Part 6a (1985-2000): Platform Wars – Recording Media

Our story begins a (somewhat) long time ago, in a format far far away...

(image credit: Future)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CTA (Consumer Technology Association), which started out as the RMA (Radio Manufacturers Association). This is the fifth in a series of essays exploring and celebrating CTA’s and our industry’s first century of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship, assembled from varying technology historical research and writings I have done over the course of 20-plus years, including from an annually updated industry history for CTA’s now-defunct Digital America, 20-plus years of CTA Hall of Fame inductee biographies, and numerous tech history articles for a variety of publications over the years.

Here are the previous chapters:

(image credit: Future)

History is messy. Our innate pattern recognition tendency is to cleanly divide our patchwork past into recognizable chapters or eras defined by convenient markers such as presidential administrations, the founding, introduction, or ending of an important entity or person, or simply years ending in zero.

In the tech world, there are few clean historical delineators since it often takes time and multiple layers between a technology’s invention to its becoming a meaningful societal presence. As we get closer to modern times, with the shrapnel-like explosion of technologies and devices in the last quarter of the last century and the first quarter of the current century, it becomes geometrically more difficult to define eras. So please forgive me for my creation of some artificial dividers and possibly confusing chapter enumerating and sequencing to make any sense of the last 50 years of our industry.

If the period between 1974-1985 covered in the last five chapters (parts 5a through 5e, linked above) was the most revolutionary and innovative in history, the next 15 years, the last decade and a half before the turn of the century, is best characterized as chaotic. The years between 1985 to 2000 were filled with a series of competing and incompatible devices and technologies, an era I’m labeling Platform Wars.

Why “platform” instead of the usual “format” wars? Format, to me, addresses merely a physical or digital form. “Platform” is more all-encompassing, representing not only physical or digital media or device or technology but also potentially more lucrative non-technical aspects such as royalties and licensing fees, which is where the real money is. Platform ownership factors motivated many of the “format” wars we’re about to explore.

(image credit: Future)

Companies often can’t resist the high-risk-reward siren call of establishing a new platform, even in the face of overwhelming industry opposition, costs, and low odds of success. As we have seen, history usually rewards the bold – but also tends to bury the failures. The last 15 years of the 20th century were replete with a few platform wins but an unusual number of largely unexplored platform failures, the most infamous including RCA’s CED, Philip’s CD-i, Apple’s Newton PDA, the 3DO gaming platform, Philips’ DCC and Sony’s MiniDisc, and the dueling digital CDMA-TDMA cellular networks.

Of course, platform wars were not exactly new. Our entire industry and the basis of our modern life was born of a platform war – the War of the Currents pitting Thomas Edison’s DC (Direct Current) electricity distribution system vs. George Westinghouse’s and Nikola Tesla’s AC (Alternating Current) scheme.

(credit: iStockphoto)

In less impactful but still informative early platform battles: Emile Berliner’s flat disc phonograph record and his gramophone player beat out Edison’s tube-based format for music recording. AM radio dominated by RCA and David Sarnoff managed but eventually failed to stifle Edwin Armstrong’s FM. In the early 1950s, RCA and Sarnoff triumphed over CBS’ color TV standard. Before VHS v. Beta, Philips’ compact cassette, developed by Lou Ottens in the early 1960s, eventually beat Bill Lear’s (yes, the private jet guy) 8-track and MGM’s Play-Tape audio cassette loop formats.

During the first 60 years of the consumer electronics industry, platform wars were rare, primarily since a single company – RCA – pretty much dominated the industry and could impose its platform will on everyone else. But the revolutionary tech released between 1975-1985 combined with the diminished power of RCA directly resulted in an unprecedented explosion of platform wars during the next 15 years.

Ironically, many of the platform wars during this period involved physical devices and media formats that eventually faded away, most subsumed by the internet and the smartphone. But each of these platform wars provides lessons for current and future innovators.

The most important platform war period lesson? Try to avoid them.

Take video capture for example.

There Are How Many Formats?

JVC’s and Sony’s first camcorders in 1982 merely extended the already existing VHS-Betamax format war. To make its camcorders more portable, in June 1982, JVC also introduced the compact VHS-C format, which was compatible via a physical adapter with all VHS VCRs.

But in February 1984, Kodak introduced an even more compact camcorder format, 8mm, and its first 8mm camcorder, the KodaVision 2000. Sony followed with its own 8mm camcorder the following January, then the first hi-band 8mm, or Hi8, camcorder, in April 1988. By the end of the century, added to the camcorder media mix were not one, not two, but three digital formats: MiniDV tape in 1995, recordable 3-inch DVD, and solid-state flash memory drives.

Even the industry was discombobulated by the proliferation of competing camcorder formats. In mid-1985, before the additional digital formats emerged, a trade reporter observed in a story headlined “Portable VCR: Are There 3 Formats or 6?” (the word “camcorder” wasn’t yet in common usage) that “several leading [camcorder] suppliers don’t agree how many formats exist shows the degree of confusion in the marketplace.”

(image credit: TV Guide)

Regardless of or despite the media format war, camcorders became popular. TV producers took advantage of consumer’s new love of personal video capture devices and our penchant for voyeurism by bringing a plethora of real-life comedy, horror, and tragedy to a variety of “reality-based” TV shows, using camcorder footage submitted by viewers. The first of these was “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which premiered as a special program on November 26, 1989, and was a top 20 show in its first three seasons. The show, spurred by the popularity of the camcorder, ironically spurred even greater sales of the video recording device.

The camcorder reached its voyeuristic heights on March 3, 1991, when George Holliday caught a trio of Los Angeles policemen beating a motorist named Rodney King. The resulting furor and protest riots prompted police departments across the country to install video cameras in their patrol cars and, in the 2010s, small cameras worn by officers.

Many subsequent disasters and news events would be captured not by news cameras but by amateur videophiles. As the quality of the footage produced by consumers increased, many shoestring cable news organizations started to deploy camcorders to their reporters instead of professional video equipment. At home, film recordings of family celebrations such as weddings and bar mitzvahs were replaced by video.

(image credit: MacFormat Magazine / Future)

In 1992, Sharp became the first company to build a camcorder with a color LCD screen to replace the conventional squinty viewfinder. Nearly all camcorder makers soon offered a swing-out LCD panel to supplement the tiny eyepiece.

When digital camcorder models appeared, the footage could be downloaded and edited on a personal computer, which gave rise to personal computer-based home video editing, which became as sophisticated as editing suites found in many TV studios. It also enabled struggling filmmakers to use video to create their imaginative works with only an inexpensive camcorder. The best example of this camcorder-made movie trend was the wildly successful The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

In October 2001, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) honored Hitachi, JVC, Kodak, Matsushita, and Sony with Emmy awards for their parts in developing the camcorder.

CD Data Varieties

(image credit: Getty Image)

Just as the camcorder sparked the development of portable platform variations, the introduction of the digital audio CD in 1983 sparked the development of three distinct digital format wars: one for data, one for digital video, and one for digital audio recording. And all involved Sony and Philips, the co-developers of the CD, and later, Toshiba, all attempting to control the platforms, tech, and the technology and content royalty revenues derived therefrom.

Since the CD was designed to store and play back digital bits, and since the PC industry played a key role in defining its use for data, using the CD for data was a natural extension. First in 1984 came the CD-ROM designed for use by PCs. Since it could also store A/V data as well as code, the more copious CD-ROM replaced floppy discs for distributing PC software but was mostly used to create interactive reference material – the first title was the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia in 1986 – and, eventually, video games.

Publishers produced thousands of entertaining and informative CD-ROM titles on every subject matter imaginable. By 1995, nearly a third of U.S. PC households owned a CD-ROM-capable PC, and there were more than 13,000 CD-ROM titles to choose from.

Looking back, the best way to think of CD-ROMs is as websites on a disc. CD-ROM was so popular that in the early 1990s, it birthed a whole new category of multimedia, or just MM, PCs, equipped with color screens, either integrated or add-on speakers, as well as an integrated CD-ROM drive, new models that spurred a spurt of home PC sales. The still-existing third-party PC speaker business was born with the CD-ROM.

(image credit: James Sheppard)

In 1987, Philips announced a more robust interactive data CD platform, CD-i, the “i” for interactive. Unlike the PC-based CD-ROM, CD-i was designed to be played in standalone players connected to a TV like a VCR and presented as a new, more powerful, video game platform. But CD-i seemed continually delayed, and Philips didn’t deliver actual hardware until the fall of 1991, backed the following spring by “the most comprehensive, integrated marketing campaign for a single product in the company’s history” and presence in around 2,000 retail storefronts.

But CD-i suffered three major drawbacks. First, although designed to play video, CD-i decks couldn’t play back a full theatrical movie without the addition of a $200-$400 add-on Digital Video cartridge. Most of the 150 available video CD-i titles were music videos from popular artists on Philips’ PolyGram record label – Eric Clapton, Sting, Bon Jovi, Todd Rundgren, and Peter Gabriel. Only a handful of movies were released, and they came in two-disc sets and were of barely VHS quality, so were definitively not an improvement over a plethora of films on tape you could rent from Blockbuster or available on laserdisc.

Second, for the price of a CD-i deck you could buy an entire CD-ROM-equipped multimedia PC.

Third, CD-i was soon surpassed by superior alternatives. Video game consoles had evolved quickly and became more powerful than CD-i.

These and other problems doomed CD-i, which disappeared by early 1995.

CD Video disc (image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0)

But the idea of putting movies on a five-inch digital disc was still a goal. A CD Video format was described in the original CD specifications, but the actual CDV discs, introduced in 1987, could hold only five minutes of video along with 20 minutes of digital audio and were largely relegated to music video discs. Plus, you needed a new CDV-compatible player. Since CD-i didn’t do movies well, in 1993, Philips unveiled a separate VHS-quality Video CD (VCD) format with discs that could be played in existing CD-i desks or new VCD players. But with rumors roiling about the development of a new digital video disc format, VCD never took hold.

But CD-ROM, CD-i, CD-V, and VCD were all read-only technologies. And CD was, after all, created as a digital audio platform. What was needed was a digital audio recording format to replace lower-quality analog cassettes so we could create higher-quality mixtapes.

Digital Audio Format Wars

Several competing and non-compatible digital audio recording platform alternatives emerged. First, there was PCM (Pulse Code Modulation), a digital recording feature found on many upper-end VCRs in the mid-1980s. To preserve their fidelity, I recorded my Mobile Fidelity Labs virgin vinyl box set of the Beatles’ original British albums onto PCM Beta. It was the only time I played the records for years, fearing I’d erode their fidelity with each play. Now the only turntable I own is in storage. Sigh.

(image credit: CC BY-SA 3.0)

But recording audio onto videotape made no practical sense. So, in 1987 Sony introduced Digital Audio Tape, or DAT, a cassette around a third of the size of the standard analog audio cassette. Philips countered in the fall of 1991 with the Digital Compact Cassette, or DCC, a digital version of its venerable analog cassette.

Unlike DAT, which was purely a digital audio recording format, DCC was designed to be a digital alternative to its analog antecedent to serve both as a blank recording medium for home recording use as well as a pre-recorded music format supported by several record labels (obviously not Sony or Columbia Records). And DCC was backward compatible – new DCC decks could play old audio cassettes.

DAT and DCC decks were ultimately sold by a variety of audio component makers – under license, of course, from Sony or Philips – once again forced to choose platform sides.

(image credit: Future)

When DAT proved to be popular mostly among audio professionals, Sony trumped itself on the heels of DCC’s introduction with another new home digital recording platform, the magneto-optical MiniDisc. During the summer of 1992, I moved to Knoxville, TN, to assist Philips in its public relations campaign for DCC. I spent September on the road visiting retailers across the country to demo DCC, often alongside a table manned by a Sony rep demoing MiniDisc, and thereby occupied a literal front-row seat for this short-lived platform war.

MiniDisc got much more hardware manufacturer support, was available in a wide variety of tabletop and portable versions – including Sony’s own series of MD Walkmen – and lasted far longer in the market than DCC. But both MiniDisc and DCC soon faced new digital audio recording competition from a far more logical alternative: recordable CD, or CD-R.

But amazingly, even CD-R was involved in a format war.

(Image Credit: StockPhotosArt – Technology / Alamy Stock Photo)

Despite being a part of the original CD specifications in the early 1980s, it took until 1999 for CD-R to finally make it to the consumer market, and for which Philips, post DCC’s demise, became the primary cheerleader. Responding to a survey about digital audio recording format preferences, one consumer concisely summarized the appeal of CD-R: “Two words: installed base. Why should I purchase new hardware (as cool as new hardware may be) when I already have [CD] in the car, at the house, at work, and in multiple portable formats?”

Exactly. But when CD-R hit the market, there was already an existing digital audio recordable CD format: the two-year-old PC-based and re-writable CD-RW Audio. Except audio CD-RW discs could not be played back on regular CD decks. When CD-R appeared, hardware manufacturers scrambled to make their new CD players compatible with both recordable CD formats, but consumer CD-R confusion reigned.

But CD-R suffered other problems. Unlike the reusable CD-RW and MiniDisc, CD-R was a write-once media. If you screwed up your recording, the CD-R blank disc was ruined – and at five bucks a throw, those could be expensive screw-ups. Plus, once recorded, a CD-R bereft of its jewel case was more vulnerable to the elements than its pre-recorded cousin.

The more durable MiniDisc was more like a non-linear PC hard drive: you could reorder recorded tracks to create the perfect playlist, or just erase it and start all over again. But, of course, you had to invest in a whole new collection of MiniDisc gear to gain these digital recording advantages.

Fortunately for consumers, a completely different – and media-free – digital audio solution would soon present itself.

Next week we’ll explore the ever-volatile video game platform wars.

See also: CTA Centennial Part 5e: A Decade of Disruption – 1984: Hollywood Loses The Battle Against Home Video – But Wins The War