Nailing Standards to the Wall

Technology never stops changing. That?s good for me?I make a living from covering its twists and turns. For consumers and business users, however, technological change is bittersweet. New technology brings new benefits, but those benefits are always accompanied by risks, and risks make people nervous. That?s why standards exist.

Actually, they barely exist. A standard is nothing more than a construct designed to comfort the technologically challenged. It lends an air of stability to something that?s inherently unstable by freeze-framing a moment in technological time. But as time elapses, the standard looks more and more like an ancient artifact, like a trilobite trapped in amber.

While technology will never stop changing, it comes in waves, and when you?ve seen enough of them, you begin to discern patterns in the waves. Once you?ve spotted the pattern, it gets easier (or at least possible) to judge whether a new standard, format, or feature should win your bucks.

Reading tech patterns is not rocket science. Consumers do it on a large scale all the time. After all, we decide which new technologies live and die. Of course, if you take the trouble to read the patterns consciously, you may be able to get a little ahead of the wave?and possibly avoid wasting some of your hard-earned cash on a nonstarter.

So let?s look at a few waves of technological change and see what patterns we can find in them.

The Orderly Succession Pattern

If the Compact Disc were the model for all new technologies, you?d be a lot happier, and I?d be flipping burgers. The LP had a good run from 1948 to 1983, but the succession to CD was assured by a whole bunch of easily understood benefits: compactness, durability, ease of use, and the Trojan horse of digitization?which would drive the next wave, compressed file formats, about 15 years later.

Recording technologies have a long and honorable history of orderly successions. We started with the wax cylinder but moved on to Alexander Graham Bell?s handier flat disc?Richard Thompson has actually written a song about it. Lacquer-disc recording gave way to audibly superior recording tape, which progressed in the home from open reel to 8-track and audiocassette.

Then disc recording made a comeback in the form of CD-R. Now hard-disc drives dominate everything from portables to multi-zone audio systems to recording studios?the evolution of his flat disc would probably amaze Bell. However, even that wave may be cresting with the drop in flash-memory prices.

Each of these shifts?cylinder to disc, disc to tape, back to disc, and perhaps finally beyond the land of moving parts?has provided easily understood benefits, as a product of consensus, in a logical sequence, with relatively little trauma. If only things could be this good all the time.

The Format War Pattern

Greed is a recurring pattern in human behavior. That?s why we have format wars?greedy, self-destructive lunges for licensing revenue that doom themselves by distracting attention from the benefits of new technology.

In past columns I?ve already discussed how movie-length running time guaranteed the victory of JVC/Matsushita?s VHS over Sony?s Betamax. That?s a story that executives love to retell. Having seen one format beat the pants off another, they?re always looking to play the lead role in the sequel, but somehow the sequel is never as good as the original.

At around the same time, the Laserdisc won out over two stylus-read formats, RCA?s CED and JVC?s VHD?but the format war ended up confusing the consumer, limiting the penetration of Laserdisc to a tiny videophile minority. Videodiscs didn?t become big business until DVD-Video?an orderly-succession format?made its debut a decade and a half later.

There?s nothing glorious about format wars. Occasionally format warriors develop new technologies, but more often they merely adapt them. Sony didn?t invent the videotape recorder?Ampex did. The Blu-ray and HD DVD camps didn?t develop the blue laser?all they?ve done is have it read the disc at different depths, 0.6mm for HD DVD, and 0.1mm for Blu-ray. Sony and Toshiba will soon find that consumers want a unified format a lot more than arcane technological distinctions.

That?s also why both SACD and DVD-Audio have suffered the death of a thousand yawns. High-res audio offers better sound, just as high-def DVD will offer better video, but format wars distract our attention from these benefits. To most of us, ?format war? means ?don?t invest till a victor emerges,? and that often means never.

The Imaginary Format War Pattern

Like it or not, Microsoft won the battle of the desktop, largely because arrogant Bill Gates lets people choose their own hardware vendor and arrogant Steve Jobs doesn?t. Since then a new breed of format war has emerged?the imaginary kind, in which Macintosh enthusiasts perpetually restage the battle of the desktop, hoping for a different outcome. They?re living in the past, trapped in the amber of 1984, that magic moment when the Mac seemed about to take over the world.

First it was Microsoft vs. Netscape. I?ve got news for you?when I gave up Netscape for Internet Explorer in 1999, it was because Netscape had grown so bloated and buggy that it was literally unusable, not because Big, Bad Bill twisted my arm. Lately I?ve switched to Firefox because my new HD-capable monitor requires frequent scaling up and down and Firefox lets me do it with a simple two-key command. However, I don?t view my browser preferences as wins or losses for Microsoft. After all, I still use Windows (and Office).

Now it?s supposedly Microsoft against Google. All that fuss over a little toolbar and a few weeny applets? I love Google, and use it incessantly, but anyone who equates a pumped-up search engine with an operating system is delusional. Google?s real competition is Yahoo, not Microsoft.

There are real issues in the ways Microsoft has dealt with some of its competitors. However, most of the supposed post-Mac challenges to Windows have been mirages?excepting Linux, of course.

The Curveball Pattern

Occasionally something happens that?s unpredictable bordering on kooky.

Philips invented the audiocassette as a voice-dictation format, but Ray Dolby?s noise reduction upgraded it to a music format. For awhile it even beat the LP as the primary format for prerecorded music though the CD quickly changed that.

MP3 began as the soundtrack of the Video CD, a precursor of the DVD that used primitive MPEG-1 video compression, accompanied by two-channel compressed audio, to fit movies onto a five-inch disc. DVD looks and sounds better, thanks to superior compression formats, MPEG-2 and Dolby Digital. However, VCD is surprisingly popular in the far east, where DVD is only just beginning to take over.

When used as a file format, the VCD soundtrack has an .mp3 extension. Eliminate the dot, take a sharp left turn, and you?ve got a revolution.

When I wrote about VCD?s debut, briefly and dismissively, I never would have guessed that its humble soundtrack would bring the music industry to its knees. So now I scan the waves for the next curveball?I won?t be caught napping again!

The ?Can?t We All Just Get Along?? Pattern

What makes the just-get-along pattern different from an orderly succession is that the original doesn?t disappear. Instead, something else merely sneaks in alongside it, and we get more options.

The classic pairing in this pattern is the longform LP (which stands for Long Playing record) and the single-friendly 45. I still have shelves full of them and wouldn?t part with ?em for anything. My shelves are also groaning under CDs, of course, but I never quite got around to the orderly-succession part?my turntable and universal disc player just get along on the same rack.

In home theater, makers of surround gear never could decide between the Toslink plastic-optical digital interface vs. copper-wired coaxial connections, so they simply provide both?the wimps! Just getting along can be a criminal waste of back-panel space.

Just getting along may spring from a desire for backward compatibility, cowardice, or both. Thus we have the unholy trinity of analog video connections?composite, S-, and component video?about to be joined by HDMI and 1394. Many HDTV makers support all five interfaces. Let?s hope it?s just a transitional moment of weakness.

On the other hand, sometimes just getting along can be brilliant statesmanship. FM stereo didn?t replace FM mono. It works by piggybacking an extra signal onto the mono signal, turning it into stereo. This made for a seamless transition?and even today, you can clean up messy reception by switching to the more robust mono signal. Black & white TV got a similar retrofit, for color, in the mid-1950s.

When DTS lobbied to get onto the soundtracks of DVDs, following its success in theatrical distribution, it looked like another licensing-revenue-driven format war was brewing?despite the fact that Dolby Digital had already been named the official DVD-Video soundtrack by the DVD Consortium. However, the industry simply took it in stride. Just about every surround receiver, preamp-processor, and DVD player supports both surround formats, along with quite a few disc releases of big-budget movies. Dolby and DTS just get along, whether they want to or not. Of course, you?d have to be a techie nutball to care enough about DTS to select it from the disc menu. I plead guilty.

The Stealth Pattern

Another variation of the just-get-along pattern is the stealth pattern. It?s equally harmonious, but arrives more quietly, and without the conceptual leap that distinguishes a curveball.

HDCD is a stealth format. It manipulates the ?least significant bit? in 16-bit CD audio to provide a slightly audible enhancement on HDCD players while not impairing the operation of regular CD players. If you own CDs in great numbers, you probably have a bunch of HDCDs without even knowing it.

Both CDs (with Sony?s Super Bit Mapping) and DVDs (SuperBit releases) can be mastered to provide audibly or visibly better results thanks to advances at the encoder end. These stealth technologies are not formats per se and require no special hardware?your software just improves, period.

SACD also offered up a great stealth scenario when the pre-1969 Rolling Stones catalogue was re-released in hybrid SACD/CD form. If you buy the latest pressing of Beggar?s Banquet, you?re getting an SACD layer whether you know it or not, but you?re also getting a CD layer, so it?ll play on your boombox. Everybody wins.

Reading the Tea Leaves

So what can we learn from all these patterns? The primary lesson is that successful standards generally arrive without conflict. Either there?s an orderly succession or we all just get along. Keep an eye out for curveballs and stealth formats, though they probably won?t hurt you. If there?s a war, however, watch your wallet?and if the war is only in your head, get it examined.


Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Laptop screen extenders and self-healing tents

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Home Theater

Need more contrast in your life? Here’s what you need to know about HDR TVs

So what is HDR TV? In a nutshell, it’s the best thing to happen to TV since the arrival of 4K. Here's everything you need to know about the technology, what it can do, and why it’s a must-have.
Home Theater

Here's how to preserve your precious VHS memories in a modern format

There's no reason you should have to lose those precious home videos just because VHS is a dying format. Here, we'll show you how to convert VHS tapes to a digital format, and save those memories forever.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix in July, from ‘Arrested Development’ to ‘Mad Men’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Home Theater

How to install an HD antenna so you can start enjoying free television

Today's TV antennas will get you loads of free over-the-air broadcast TV, but setting them up can be a challenge. We walk you through how to install a TV antenna, and provide tips on picking the best antenna for your home.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
Movies & TV

Binge away with our guide to the best on-demand streaming services

Looking to waste a weekend bingeing or just putting together a movie night? Find out everything you need, from prices to features, in our guide to the best online streaming sites and services for on-demand movies and TV shows.
Home Theater

Time for a TV upgrade? Here’s what you need to know about 4K Ultra HD TV

Ultra HD 4K has quickly taken over the world of TVs. But what is Ultra HD 4K, how does it work, and most importantly, should you upgrade, or keep your old TV? We explain it all right here.

Say 'see ya' to those pesky targeted ads from Google for good

Google updated its "Ad Settings," and now you can get rid of personalized ads that are targeted just for you. The process is fast and simple, leaving you with a sense of relief that Google won't know everything about you.

Here’s how to get the most out of your Amazon Prime subscription

In light of the recent price increase for Amazon Prime, you may as well squeeze as much as you can out of it. Here's a quick rundown of everything you have access to with a Prime membership.
Smart Home

The 10 Best Google Home Games

Google Home is a handy device, but did you know you can play games with it? There are a ton to play, and we tested them all. Here are some of favorites that you can play on your Google Home device.
Home Theater

Still wondering why you should buy a smart TV? Here's what you should consider

If you've been living under a rock, you might wonder: What is a smart TV, anyway? Lucky for you stone-dwellers, we've put together a quick-hit guide to teach you everything you need to know about televisions with big brains.
Home Theater

We all cut cable, and now we’re just as screwed on streaming

As live TV streaming services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue raise prices in tandem, it raises questions about whether these services were ever a viable alternative to cable in the first place.

T-Mobile expands Simple Global plan, offers $5 international day pass for LTE

T-Mobile offers a number of plans for both you and your family, but how do you know which one is best for you and your situation? Here, we break down the specifics of each plan to help you decide.

Save $50 on the Ultimate Ears Wonderboom speaker, today only

Finding a good Bluetooth speaker at a price that won't send you spiraling into debt is a lot more difficult than you'd think. When you see a deal like this come through the pipeline, you really shouldn't pass it up.

Shift it yourself: How to drive stick in a manual transmission car

It might seem intimidating, but anyone can drive a manual transmission car. Knowing how to operate this type of gearbox will serve you well. Here's everything you need to know to learn how to drive stick.
Home Theater

AT&T wants to make HBO more like Netflix, and it could be a disaster

After acquiring HBO parent company Time Warner, AT&T is pushing HBO to become more like Netflix, but for all of Netflix’s success, this plan might not be great for either HBO or its customers.
Home Theater

Why I still won’t wear wireless headphones

Wireless headphones promise liberation from cords, tangles, and snags, but there’s just one issue holding them back: battery life. And until manufacturers figure it out, sales numbers prove consumers aren’t yet biting.

Google might be planning a game console. That doesn’t mean it will happen

A new report suggests that Google is working on a game console, code-named Yeti. The reports about Google's game console are likely true, but that doesn't mean we will ever see it.

MacOS Mojave brings evening elegance to your Mac experience

The MacOS Mojave public beta is out now, with an official release coming later this fall. Chock-full of quality-of-life upgrades, we took it for a test drive to get a sneak peek at what you can expect from the next major update to MacOS…
Health & Fitness

Ugh. I’m done with fitness trackers, and so is the world

In 2016, everyone was tracking their fitness. In 2017, people grew tired of it. In 2018, I’m done with it. I’m going tracker-free in my workouts from now on.

iOS 12 is more evidence you should buy an iPhone, not an Android phone

The next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 12, will be compatible with devices all the way back to 2013’s iPhone 5S. Android phones from the same era didn’t even see 2016’s software update. It’s further evidence you…

5 obviously stupid iPhone problems that iOS 12 doesn’t even try to fix

At WWDC 2018, Apple took the wraps off the latest version of its iOS operating system. iOS 12 introduces quite a bit of changes -- visually and under the hood -- but there are still some basics that it doesn’t address. Here are a few of…