This year is shaping up to be a year of technology battles-Microsoft vs. Google, iPhone vs. Android-but just last month, we saw the end to a momentous tech showdown. On Feb. 19, the high-definition disc format war was finally over. And when the dust settled, Toshiba's HD DVD technology lay beaten on the ground-left for dead by its former friends (Warner Brothers, Amazon, Best Buy) in favor of Sony's Blu-ray format.
HD DVD, someone had to go. Sure, your picture quality was every bit as stunning as Blu-ray's, your price point was mildly more tolerable and your multimedia functionality probably would have been pretty good if it had ever really had a chance to develop. Nevertheless, members of the buying public weren't going to go out and buy two machines, so the world had to pick one-and it just wasn't you.
But take heart. When you reach the sweet hereafter, you'll be in remarkable company, hanging with some of the most promising nonstarters in the history of video technology. Every one of these formats was a brilliantly engineered technological flop--and maybe Toshiba can reap some consolation from the fact that rival Sony's name shows up more than once, proving that for every sip of marketplace success, a company must swallow an ocean of consumer rejection.
10. DIVX DVD (1998, from Digital Video Express and Circuit City)
Not to be confused with the video codec DivX, DIVX was an alternative to standard DVDs promoted by electronics chain Circuit City and the entertainment law firm Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca and Fischer. DIVX presented the consumer with a complex rent-to-own proposition where owners of a DIVX machine would buy a disc at Circuit City-of course-for $4 (since I'm adjusting everything for inflation, that's $5.19 today), then have 48 hours to watch it. After that, the disc would be useless. If said movie-lover wanted to keep the disc, however, he could pony up another couple of bucks to own the movie for good. The main benefit of DIVX was that you didn't need to return your rental disc to the store when you were done-it just stopped working. Unfortunately, its drawbacks were much, much worse: You needed to hook it up to your phone line to make the discs work, the discs were only sold at a limited number of stores and the players were more expensive than regular DVD players. The funny thing is that DIVX players could also play conventional DVDs, so when Circuit City abandoned the format in 1999 and unloaded the remaining DIVX players at steep discounts, the machines unintentionally ushered in the era of bargain DVD machines.
9. Capacitance Electronic Discs (aka CED, aka SelectaVision; 1981, from RCA)
RCA's low-tech alternative to LaserDiscs, vinyl CEDs looked like records encased in plastic cartridges. And they sort of worked like records, too-SelectaVision players read the video information off of the grooved CED discs using a stylus. The players cost $500 at launch ($1164 today) but floundered in the marketplace trying to compete against the hugely successful VCR. By 1984, SelectaVisions were selling at $149. After that, they weren't selling at all.
8. LaserDisc (1978, from MCA and Philips)
While VHS and Beta fought over who had the best recordable videocassette, MCA and Philips came out with a laser-read optical videodisc technology that is the basis for every subsequent optical disc format. The first consumer LaserDisc player, the Magnavox Model 8000, cost $749 (the equivalent of $2432 today). With 425 lines of resolution, LaserDisc had better video quality than either Betamax or VHS, but lacked the other formats' recording capability, so it never gained major market share outside of the video enthusiast realm. Plus, the discs were huge, at 11.81 in., and easily scratchable. When smaller, higher resolution DVDs were developed, analog LaserDiscs didn't have a chance.
7. Betamax (1975, from Sony)
The most famous format war of all time, the contest between Sony's Betamax technology and JVC's VHS was a long, drawn-out affair that continued into the late 1980s. Sony's first Betamax players were introduced at $2495 ($9817 today), and Betamax was pitched as the quality video recording choice, with 250 lines of resolution to VHS's 240. Nevertheless, VHS players were cheaper, and VHS tapes had double the recording time of Betamax. Improvements were made to both technologies over the years, but in the end, even mighty Sony had to admit defeat. It started producing VHS players in 1988.
6. TeD (Television Electronic Disc; 1975, from Telefunken and Teldec)
How do you say "unnecessarily complex" in German? Apparently, the word for that is TeD, the moniker for a spinning, flexible foil disc that recorded video information in grooves, which were then read by the machine using a pressure pickup, which then translated the information from the grooves into an electrical signal via a piezoelectric crystal. Instead of a turntable, the 8-in. discs floated on a cushion of air as they spun around at 1500 rpm-all this engineering for 10 minutes of playing time per disc. The TeD sounded revolutionary when first announced in 1970, but, by the time it made it to market in 1975, it looked like a novelty compared to the videocassettes that were beginning to establish market dominance.
5. VCord and VCord II (1974, from Sanyo-sold by Toshiba in Canada)
One of the forgotten alternatives to VHS and Betamax during the videotape format wars, Sanyo's VCord was introduced prior to Betamax, and was, by all accounts, popular at first. The VCord was advertised as "exceptionally compact and lightweight" at 30 pounds, and was the first recorder to offer two recording speeds, along with freeze frame and slow motion. The great videocassette battle of the 70s and 80s didn't really have room for a third contestant, however. Today, the VCord and its successor, the VCord II, are often confused with old Betamax machines.
4. Avco Cartrivision (1972, from Cartridge Television Inc.)
Television guru Mark Schubin turned me on to this gem of video history. The Cartrivision was an American-made videocassette recorder that debuted a full three years before Sony's Betamax, and was integrated into television sets sold in stores such as Sears. It cost an astounding $1600 ($8103 adjusted for inflation), and worked with rental tapes that could only be played once before they had to be sent back. Not surprisingly, the manufacturer of this expensive and unwieldy electronic device was out of business by 1974.
3. U Matic (1971, from Sony)
These 0.75-in. videotape recorders used one of the first enclosed cartridge formats on the market. Debuting at $1395 ($7292 in 2008 dollars), the machines could record 60 minutes of color television at 250 lines of resolution with full stereo sound. Nevertheless, the price was too steep for mom-and-pop TV watchers, so U matic never really caught on with consumers. It did, however, catch on with professionals, and serves as a workhorse format in television production to this day.
2. EVR (Electronic Video Recording; 1968, developed by CBS Labs, manufactured by Motorola)
Despite the name, EVR devices didn't record. First demonstrated in the late 1960s, they played reels of film through an optical transducer that output video for standard televisions. The first demonstration models were black-and-white, but by the early 70s CBS had developed a color version. Unfortunately, the machines proved too expensive to mass produce, and CBS pulled out of the effort by 1971, having lost millions on the project.
1. CV-2000 (1965, from Sony)
For a mere $695 ($4670 in today's bucks), Sony sold one of the first consumer videotape recorders. This compact (46 pounds!) machine recorded TV shows in black and white on reel-to-reel tapes. Each spool of tape cost $40 (that's almost $270 to you and me) and could hold 1 hour of video at 200 stunning lines of resolution. Intended for the home market, most CV-2000s were bought up by schools and businesses. And before the CV-2000 had much of a chance to gain acceptance, color and cassette options were starting to appear.