Flops: Fourteen Formats and Technologies That Couldn't Quite Hang On Page 2

The logical successor to the vaunted VCR had finally arrived when the first standalone DVD recorders reached store shelves in late 2000 (Panasonic) and early 2001 (Pioneer)—or so it seemed. Unbeknown to all but the shrewdest pundits, the successor had actually arrived a year earlier in the form of the hard-disc-based personal video recorder, or PVR, offered by two companies with catchy names—TiVo and ReplayTV.

Over the next few years, these innovative devices would leave DVD recorders in the dust as they transformed the way America watched TV. With their ability to record and play at the same time, viewers could pause live TV and collect and rate favorite shows for later viewing without having to mess with timers and search for programs in novel ways. Looking back, it’s easy to see why what we now call the DVR (digital video recorder) became a staple of cable and satellite TV boxes.

Compared with the DVR, DVD recorders were cumbersome to operate and hampered by confusion over an alphabet soup of competing formats: DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and DVD-RAM. On top of that, initial prices were high and recordable DVD drives were becoming popular in PCs. Even combo VCR/DVD recorders and DVD recorders with hard drives couldn’t save the category. That’s not to say standalone DVD recorders are extinct: You can still find a handful of new and refurbished models in the $100-$300 range.

As the 20th century came to a close, the music business was on the cusp of disruptive change. The LP was all but dead, the almighty CD had reached its zenith, and millions of college kids were flocking to a start-up, peer-to-peer service called Napster that let them quickly and easily download and share MP3 music files over the Internet. It was—quite literally—a free-for-all. The RIAA responded with a $20-billion suit that ultimately led to a court-ordered shutdown of Napster in 2001. It was the beginning of a new era for music and audio.

While Apple was busy perfecting the iPod and figuring out how to build a business around the inescapable force of digital music, record labels were chasing online pirates and looking for a foolproof digital rights management (DRM) system to stop piracy. So it made perfect sense that they would introduce a sleek, new class of audiophile recordings…in not one, but two formats: first Super Audio CD (SACD) from CD codevelopers Sony and Philips and then DVD-Audio, an industry-developed format supported by virtually every major label and many big-name audio companies.

SACD started life in the fall of 1999 as a tweak format with the launch of a $5,000 Sony player and 19 (mostly classical) Sony Music titles priced at $25 each. Although the format was capable of multichannel surround sound, early players and discs played only stereo SACDs and regular CDs; multichannel players and discs would come a couple of years later. After several false starts, DVD-Audio stumbled into the market a year later, led by a $1,000 Panasonic player and a small, eclectic mix of pop, jazz, and classical titles, also priced around $25. Players were touted as universal machines that played CDs, regular DVDs, and the new, high-res DVD-Audio discs, which served up music mixed for 5.1-channel surround sound, DVD-like menus, and multimedia extras such as videos, interviews, lyrics, and photos. A Warner Music exec who was at the forefront of the launch said DVD-Audio would be looked back on as “a milestone similar to the move from mono to stereo.” Actually, it would be all but forgotten before the end of the decade.

Enthusiasts and industry insiders had high hopes for both formats, which followed different paths to the same goal: ultrahigh-resolution sound that would blow away the CD. SACD used Direct Stream Digital (DSD) technology to reach sonic nirvana, while DVD-Audio pushed DVD to its limits by employing more bits and higher sampling rates. Listening to a well-recorded and mixed multichannel SACD or DVD-Audio disc on a good surround-sound system was (and still is) a riveting you-are-there experience (the SACD 5.1-channel mix of Pink Floyd’s seminal Dark Side of the Moon comes to mind). But no matter how wonderfully rich the experience, mainstream America didn’t care or perhaps didn’t even notice the new formats. Confusion at retail made it all but impossible to find these special discs, which often ended up mixed in with regular CDs or buried somewhere in the back of the store. High hardware and disc prices and a slew of lackluster classic rock remixes on DVD-Audio didn’t help the cause.

Audiophiles alone were responsible for any discs that were sold, which wasn’t many. Sales of both formats combined peaked in 2003 at 1.7 million units, with SACD capturing 1.3 million—it’s largest year ever. To put these numbers into perspective, total music sales for that year were about 800 million units, with CD accounting for 93 percent and SACD/DVD-Audio 0.002 percent. DVD-Audio sales peaked at 0.5 million in 2005 before being abandoned by the major labels.

SACD lives on as a niche format, supported by a small but fervent band of audiophiles around the world and is available to anyone who owns one of several universal Blu-ray players that spin SACDs and DVD-Audio discs. Thousands of SACD titles are available online through sites such as acousticsounds.com, and indie labels such as Mobile Fidelity and Chesky Records still release SACDs. Even DVD-Audio refuses to completely go away—DVD-A.net reported on a handful of new titles in 2011. If we learned one lesson from these formats, it’s that mainstream America continues to choose convenience and portability over sound quality.

Formats come and formats go. Some are so fleeting that it takes an article like this to remind us that they ever existed in the first place. Here’s a look at three transient technologies.

ELCASET (1977)
1977 was the year of Star Wars, which gave us Luke Skywalker, and Saturday Night Fever, which gave us shiny polyester shirts and ignited the disco inferno. It was also the year Sony introduced an enthusiast tape format with a curious (OK, unfortunate) name: Elcaset. That’s right, Elcaset with one s and one t—a moniker apparently concocted by some marketing genius to convey “Extra large cassette.” Sounds to me like something you’d find at Taco Bell, but I digress.

Hailed in magazine ads as delivering “high-fidelity specifications never before imaginable in a cassette system,” Elcaset combined the superior fidelity of bulky reel-to-reel tape with the convenience of the Compact Cassette. Sound quality was enhanced by doubling tape width (⅛ to ¼ inch) and running speed (1 ⅞ to 3 ¾ inches per second, or ips—same as 8-track), which improved frequency response and reduced noise and distortion; the trade-off was a tape shell that was twice as big as a regular cassette, yet still portable and fairly compact. To deal with wow and flutter—the ability of a tape deck to run at a consistent speed and the Achilles’ heel of cassettes—the transport in an Elcaset deck actually pulled the tape out of its shell and guided it across the playback and recording heads instead of moving the heads to make contact with the tape as is done with a regular cassette.

As noted in the owner’s manual for Sony’s top-of-the-line EL-7 deck, which sold for upwards of $1,000—a chunk of change today, let alone in the late ’70s—Elcaset offered advanced features that weren’t available on the cassette, including tape protectors, reel stoppers, erasure-proof tabs, and automatic shutoff.

Elcaset was a noble effort at providing improved fidelity in a format that was portable and far more convenient than clunky open-reel machines, but it was overpriced and too late to the party to win over die-hard recording enthusiasts who either stayed the course with reel-to-reel or moved to cassette with the arrival of high-end decks from Nakamichi. [Editor’s Note: See this month’s Vintage Gear in Perfect Focus for a look at the famed Nakamichi Dragon.] In the end, Elcaset decks didn’t offer enough of a performance edge over cassette to woo the masses, and its tapes were incompatible with the millions of cassette decks already in consumers’ homes.

Visit elcaset.ca for Geraint Tuck’s painstaking overview of the Elcaset format, complete with dozens of photos.

We’ve come to expect warnings on a pack of cigarettes, but on an audio disc? DualDisc was the half-baked product of an out-of-touch music industry that was quickly losing control. In the mid-2000s, cash-cow CD sales had dropped to levels of a decade earlier, and Apple’s iTunes Music Store became an overnight sensation, selling more than 100 million downloads in its first 15 months. Instead of hunkering down to focus on building a viable online business, old-guard record labels plodded along with hobbyist formats and introduced the two-sided DualDisc in a futile effort to stave off the inevitable decline of physical media.

DualDisc was conceived as a high-value CD with a DVD on the flip side that offered a surround-sound mix of the album and multimedia extras such as band interviews, all for just a few bucks more than a regular CD. It was an interesting idea, except for one problem: The tricky process of bonding CD and DVD layers together produced a kludge of a disc that could not be guaranteed to work with any CD player. In fact, CD codevelopers Sony and Philips would not permit DualDiscs to carry the CD logo because they didn’t meet the format’s rigid specs.

The labels shrugged and shipped millions of discs with a printed warning that the disc might not play on all CD players, especially slot-loading players and megachangers. A number of hardware companies issued compatibility warnings and statements advising customers that any disc or player damage resulting from playing a DualDisc would not be covered under warranty. Shortly after the DualDiscs hit retail shelves in late 2004 and early 2005, reports of playback problems and retail returns began trickling in.

First-year sales for Sony BMG were in the millions, but the figures were misleading because many high-profile albums, including Bruce Springsteen’s Devils & Dust, were released only on DualDisc. Nearly half of all buyers didn’t even realize they were buying a special disc, according to an NPD survey. By early 2006, Warner, EMI, and other big labels were already backing away from the format in favor of CD/DVD combo packages, which were cheaper to produce and offered a clear-cut value proposition. By the end of the decade, DualDisc was dead and buried.

HD DVD (2006)
It’s the story of a classic, high-stakes format war between competing systems—in this case, two high-definition optical disc formats vying to succeed DVD as home entertainment’s Next Big Thing. Unlike the legendary VCR wars of the ’70s that started the home video revolution, this was a battle to claim what would likely be the last physical-media format. And unlike the forgotten SD (Super Density disc) versus MMCD (Multimedia CD) skirmishes of the mid ’90s, which preceded the launch of DVD, there was no 11th-hour truce clearing the way for an orderly market introduction. No, this was a messy, full-on, public war that pitted the Toshiba-led HD DVD format against the Sony-backed Blu-ray format.

High-definition disc players in both formats shipped to stores in 2006, following a year of tit-for-tat posturing, stalled unification talks, and pleas from all corners of the industry to avoid a format war. In an interview with Billboard magazine, one retail executive termed the failure to agree on a single format “criminal,” saying he and his sales staff wouldn’t know which format to recommend to customers. HD DVD hit stores a couple of months before Blu-ray, giving it an early advantage, but the war escalated quickly as more players and discs were introduced in both formats.

The one-upsmanship continued: HD DVD players were less expensive (and easier and cheaper to manufacturer), but Blu-ray was more forward looking and offered greater disc capacity. A steady stream of format news would tip the balance one way or the other: Sony said it would incorporate Blu-ray into its PlayStation 3; Microsoft countered with an HD DVD drive for it’s Xbox 360. Studio alliances shifted: Warner Bros., HD DVD’s biggest supporter, started producing Blu-ray titles alongside HD DVD, while Paramount dropped Blu-ray to support HD DVD amid whispers of big bucks and back-room deal making.

Things could have gone either way through 2006 and well into 2007—until Blockbuster announced an exclusive Blu-ray deal and an industry survey revealed that Blu-ray discs were outselling HD DVDs two to one. The crushing blow came in January 2008 when Warner Bros. announced it would stop releasing HD DVD titles to focus on Blu-ray. Less than two years after bringing the first HD DVD player to the market, a shell-shocked Toshiba conceded defeat, ending consumer confusion and paralysis over which format to buy, not to mention the retail problem of dual inventories. The story of HD DVD versus Blu-ray has become fodder for a case study on how not to launch a format. The question now becomes: How long can Blu-ray—or any physical format for that matter—survive in the face of growing competition from digital streaming, downloading, and video on demand? —Bob Ankosko


fcapra1's picture

I don't think movies will follow the same route as music and become a (completely) non-tangible format. The reason for this is that the movie companies would not have control. With a disc, there is some form of copy control. This is not the case with MP3's. I know we can go to iTunes and buy digital movie files, but the means to play back these files is limited for your average American.

As for streaming movies, the issue is one of speed. To get good playback of streaming content, you need at least 10mps. I doubt 40% of this country runs that 'fast'. I don't think enough people want to pay for it at current prices.

msardo's picture

Great article! May I say you missed a format - I think it was called the VideoDisc and it was by RCA in the early 1980's. It was about the size of a LaserDisc and inside the plastic case, it had a tape or even a film of the movie. Obviously, it required a special player.

abentrod's picture

The format was Capacitance Electronic Disc, I sold them back in the day. Also missing is JVC VHD disc system, really did not reach here, it died while still only in Japan.

Cheekybesom's picture

What about Circuit City's disastrous DVD format DIVX? Discs that you had to throw away 48 hrs after your initial viewing. It pretty much destroyed Circuit City.

kelsci's picture

I was in Atlanta on a junket for a senior works program in the later 1970s. I went on a early Sat. morning before I left to go to Rich's department store hoping to see the demo of the laserdisc machine. There were about 100 people surrounding the display demo. they were playing SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT on a magnavox tv that was not too big screenwise in size. There were also discs under the Discovision label of some Universal films for sale.

J_Wilson's picture

It preceded HD DVD & Blu-ray for prerecorded HD media.
It was only 1080i.
HD DVR's, HD DVD & Blu-ray, ended its run.

Colin Robertson's picture

I saw some great HD images on that, but we knew it would never take off because people were so adverse to tapes by then.

Goyoishere's picture

I was on that Laserdisc bandwagon. Those disks cost about $40 at the time. I really took a bath on that one. I got lazy about getting rid of them and I now still have about 50 of them taking up space on my shelf. Doh!!

Rob Sabin's picture
Thanks for all the comments, guys. D-VHS was definitely missed, though we mention CED and JVC's videodisc entry in the section on Laserdisc.

I remember writing Home Theater's features on Divx back in the day; we did a major investigation on what it was and how it came about. Disney was the primary studio behind it on the movie side (though they were hidden by their Hollywood law firm) and Circuit City bought in. This was a pay-per-play DVD system in the immediate aftermath of the launch of what came to be known as "open DVD," and it was announced after a long and arduous process in which the industry had presumably agreed on a single DVD standard to avoid a format war (vs what happened with HD DVD and Blu-ray).

Divx was a major black eye on the CE industry, and the consumers voted not just with their pocketbooks but with a major anti-Divix campaign online. The web was still just getting its steam on in those days, and I recall it was the first time I'd seen people use the bulletin boards and start up their own websites to do battle with the forces of evil (so to speak). What killed it in the end wasn't the outcry, though -- it was just so complicated, with different levels of purchase and what not, that even the sales people at Circuit couldn't explain it correctly. And they never got the broad distribution for the $5 pay-per-play discs that they wanted, so people weren't banging into racks of discs at their local gas stations the way the founders envisioned.

Good riddance, but no matter. Hollywood has always wanted a medium which would allow them to make the cash register ding anytime someone watches a movie at home, and they have it now with streaming.

barryaz1's picture

I plead guilty to the Laserdisc and HDDVD. I don't regret the LD (but do regret those still on the shelves, like the earlier comment), and I figure the HDDVD was just a bad bet.

At least my kids always understood the value of widescreen, even (or especially) when it was an early Disney movie or (I think) Meet Me in St Louis, one of my daughter's favorites, or Star Wars, although I will be eternally thrilled that my son first experienced that in a big spectacular theater at an annual charity screening here in Arizona.

Tut's picture

Had it come at another time, I wish Elcaset had taken off. It even *looked* like a good format. I'm glad to see mention of the ol' matchbook in the 8-track trick. A few of my favorite carts had a matchbook taped in the correct spot so I didn't have to dink around with it every time.

As for video streaming for movies, I hate that it's become so popular. For one, the US internet and ISPs can't handle it yet. It's slowing down everyone's normal internet activities. For another, it isn't (yet) delivering non-lossy audio or even decent video that doesn't reek of compression artifacts. They'll have to waste even more of our precious bandwidth to deliver decent results. Sure, streaming an old episode of Ironside from Hulu is fine for a lunchtime fix, but for delivering a feature film? No way. The studios will start to get the idea that nobody wants to buy, own, and store Blu–ray discs and we'll all be relegated to crappy damn streaming, not to mention the inability to watch something on the road.

itslow's picture

MiniDisc would've been a good addition to the list.

Garry Margolis's picture

Overall, a very good history! In addition to D-VHS, another format you missed is pre-recorded 1/4-inch tape. The earliest were available in both "stacked" and "staggered" versions -- the "staggered" tapes were recorded and played with separate heads for left and right channels. At least one playback deck made by Viking had user-adjustable spacing between its playback heads to allow the listener to tweak the time/phase relationships of the two tracks. These ran at 7.5 inches/second.

Later, 1/4-track 1/4-inch tapes, played at 3.75 inches/second, increased playing time by a factor of four for stereo recordings -- the tape was reversed halfway through its play. Dolby B-Type noise reduction improved the playback quality. Quadraphonic 4-channel pre-recorded tapes were also sold -- these were not reversed during play.

Other dead formats: the Cook Binaural stereo LP that used two separate grooves for left and right channels and a dual-headed playback arm -- it preceded the single-groove stereo LP by about 4-5 years; the RCA cassette that contained 1/4" tape running at 3.75 inches/second -- that's why Philips named theirs the "compact" cassette; the 3M 3-channel tape cartridge -- it used 1/8" tape before the compact cassette did; the Philips/Grundig Video 2000 (also known as V2000 and Video Compact Cassette) VCR system, sold only in Europe; the CD-Video (mentioned below); the Video CD; and the Super Video CD, sold mostly in China.

Your laserdisc summary could have been more detailed. This was the best video format available to the consumer until the advent of DVD. Its basic limitation was that it used broadcast-quality composite analog video, so it could be no better than what a viewer could see on the air.

The original laser videodiscs were CAV (constant angular velocity), i.e. fixed rotational speed, and played for 30 minutes/side. The next development was CLV (constant linear velocity), where the rotational speed decreased as the pit track spiraled from the inside to the outside edge of the disc. These could hold up to 60 minutes/side. The signal/noise ratio of the analog audio tracks on a CLV laserdisc, though, was not very good until the CBS CX noise reduction system was incorporated into the discs and players in the early '80s.

There was a failed CD-Video (not to be confused with Video CD) format that included a few minutes of laserdisc video plus a few minutes of audio playable in a CD player. The improvements in mastering technology needed to put laserdisc-compatible video onto a CD resulted in much better looking laserdiscs.

Later laserdiscs incorporated both CD-quality digital and analog audio tracks — these allowed for alternate commentary tracks on the analog channels. Many of the digital tracks had matrix-encoded Dolby Surround audio. However, PAL discs didn't have enough bandwidth for both digital and analog audio, so European laserdiscs dropped analog audio support.

Still later, Dolby Digital AC-3 multichannel audio was added, replacing the analog tracks on NTSC discs. I don't remember any players with built-in AC-3 decoders -- a special output fed an external multichannel decoder.

As for the competing optical videodisc systems, the RCA CED capacitive disc included CX-encoded analog audio for decent quality sound. JVC's VHD disc's audio quality was not very good -- it may have had its own noise reduction system included. Both had video quality similar to VHS.

For a time in the '80s, a subscription service distributed VHD music video discs to European discotheques. The quality difference between the VHD audio and the disco's own program sources, though, was jarring, and the service died out. If it had been on laserdisc, it could have kept going until the advent of DVD, and it might have spread to North America.

During the development of DVD-Video, laserdisc fans expressed a lot of resistance to the idea of compressed video. But after the DVD was released, most laserdisc users took one look at the higher resolution and better color reproduction of the DVD and abandoned their laserdisc support.

dsthornberry's picture

Does anyone remember the HI-FI VCRS not the Stereo VCR which had a stationary set of stereo record heads but the ones that had the audio heads on the spinning drum with the video heads? Needless to say this was my home audio recording and playback decks during the mid and late eighties as the quality and S/N was very good.