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 (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).
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