Technology Battles of the Past
With the New Year comes the January Sales, a time when retailers reduce prices in the hope of increased sales. And if you're a tech enthusiast, now could be the time to grab that games console or smartphone you've been eyeing. So, to celebrate the shiny new gadgets you're picking up at (hopefully) bargain prices, we decided to look back at some of the technologies of the past that have shaped the consumer market of their time. The battles below are format/system based, featuring same-generation technologies, that produced clear winners, even if only for a short time.
VHS vs Betamax
Technology Type: Video cassette recorders
When: 1975 - 1988
The Battle: The first home video recorder was released in 1975 by Sony in Betamax format. The following year, the first Video Home System (VHS) format recorder was released by JVC, which was lighter, cheaper and offered tapes that could hold two hours of footage, compared to Betamax's one hour. While Betamax had better image quality, VHS was embraced by the video rental industry, mainly because you could fit a whole movie on one cassette tape.
Who Won: VHS. "Superior" technology doesn't guarantee commercial success. Betamax became obsolete, while VHS became the format of choice for home-viewing (apart from in certain parts of Asia, where LaserDisc ruled supreme). VHS would stay on top until well into the 1990s.
What Came Next: While VHS won its generational war, it later lost out to a superior technology. DVDs replaced VHS and connected with the public in a way no format has since. DVDs had the image quality and digital capacity (menus and chapters!) that meant VHS couldn't compete. Just as CDs did for music, DVDs became the standard digital format for viewing films at home. The fact that films are still being released on DVD is evidence of that. Speaking of which.
HD DVD vs Blu-ray
Technology Type: High-density optical discs
When: 2006 – 2008
The Battle: With the introduction of high-definition televisions, a market emerged for the next generation of disc format that could go beyond what DVD could offer. Blu-ray came along first, but its higher price was undesirable to some in the industry. As a result, HD DVD was born. Sides were drawn, with Sony and their PlayStation 3 going with Blu-ray, and Toshiba and Microsoft's Xbox 360 standing with HD DVD. On the film studio front, Blu-ray was championed by Fox and Disney, while HD DVD had Universal. The resulting battle blunted the commercial take-up of high-density optical discs of either format, forcing the film studios into frantic talks to end the battle and pick a format.
Who Won: Blu-ray. By the time Microsoft had switched sides for their Xbox One console in 2013, the battle had been over for years. If Fox and Warner Bros. had declared exclusive allegiance to HD DVD, as was rumoured to be close to happening, then the battle may have swung the other way and HD DVD might have come out on top, but as things turned out, it didn't.
Blu-ray became the standard disc for this generation, and now HD DVD is almost completely forgotten. However, the victory for Blu-ray wasn't as decisive as it had been for DVD. This was partly because DVDs stuck around well into this new generation, making the case for a new disc format harder to sell to consumers. Not to mention the sea-change in home viewing choices.
What Came Next: While Blu-ray remains popular for those wishing to purchase high definition films or console games in disc form, the reality is that the internet and downloading/streaming have changed everything. Streaming services like Netflix have taken a big bite out of disc sales, just as both legal and illegal downloading have. This combined with game downloads being offered by consoles, means it's now harder than ever to shift discs, no matter what the quality. And with Ultra HD Blu-ray now available (offering 4K image quality not available through standard Blu-ray), standard Blu-ray would appear to be nearing the end of its run.
LCD vs Plasma vs SED
Technology Type: First generation of high-definition televisions.
When: Mid 1990s – 2014
The Battle: Quite possibly the most confusing technology battle of all time, at least within the realms of consumer products. Have you ever heard of SED? What's the difference between LCD and plasma? Why does every modern TV have an acronym in its name? Well first of, SED (Surface-conduction electron-emitter display) TVs were pretty much a non-factor from day one. Toshiba and Cannon tried to make them work but never got them off the ground. The real battle was between LCD (Liquid-crystal-display) and plasma. Panasonic was the main driving force behind plasma, other TV makers sided with LCD, while Samsung and LG offered both.
Just a side note, LED (light emitting diode) televisions are sometimes talked about in comparison to LCD TVs. In fact, LED TV's are just a different type of LCD screen, as detailed in much greater detail here.
Who Won: LCD. Plasma TVs stopped being commercially sold in 2014 when Samsung and LG threw in the towel, just a year after Panasonic had done the same. Plasma was generally considered to offer greater image quality than LCD and at no extra cost, yet despite this, LCD won. Plasma did suffer early on from reports of "burned in" images left on the screen, while LCD TVs were considered to have a brighter screen and came in a larger variety of sizes. Whatever the reason, LCD simply sold better and more consistently than plasma.
What Came Next: We're living through this transition right now, and sadly what everyone really wants, fewer acronyms, doesn't seem likely. The next step forward for television is 4K image quality and as a result, we have yet more battles underway. LG are pushing forward with OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs, while Samsung seem to be giving up on OLED and are instead going ahead with QLED (quantum dot light emitting diodes). Having given up on plasma TVs, Panasonic now offer 4K Ultra HD LED LCD TVs. And we've not even touched on 3D TVs.
If on January 1st you purchased a film on Ultra HD Blu-ray that you already own on DVD, or picked up a new 4K TV to replace your old plasma model, then you're continuing a well-established consumer product tradition. This process of upgrading what we already own shows no sign of stopping anytime soon, even if it's perhaps slowing in some places, and dramatically shifting in others.
These past thirty years have shown that technology is there to amaze and then be replaced. Consumer demand is often the driving force behind technology, therefore it's inevitable that new technology battles will be fought in the coming years. As consumers, we just have to wait and see what amazes us next.