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19 March 2008

Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?

On Saturday afternoons in the summers of the 1980s, we'd excitedly enter the Dial-A-Movie, still dripping pool water from our swimsuits. Here was a whole world of choice, a rental store with seemingly every movie ever made displayed on its shelves. What to choose, what to choose. Arguments would ensue - the youngest of the bunch would want to get Pinocchio (again) and the older kids wouldn't want to rent things from the Disney shelf at all, or anything else that's animated, for that matter. While the rest of the gang was debating the merits of Summer School versus Spaceballs, I would notice the poor guy standing in front of the Betamax shelf. That's right - just the one shelf, with its meagre selection of titles. I would wonder why they weren't afforded the same cinematic cornucopia as we VHS people. Back then, videotape was videotape to me. Why would they choose a Betamax tape? Why not simply take a VHS tape home? I had no idea that the machines they had at home would be different, that the tape wouldn't fit. With no concept of incompatibility issues, I was therefore even more unaware of the vicious format war between Sony's slightly superior Betamax and JVC's almost ubiquitous Video Home System. Today, I'm more aware of these things. Primarily because history repeats itself.

You knew it was coming, but you couldn't wait, could you? Now you're stuck with an HD-DVD player that has become obsolete within less than a year of purchase, as well as a shelf sagging under buyer's remorse, instead the weight of all those movies. Sony must be pleased: their format has finally won. With all the major retailers exclusively carrying Blu-ray discs, and the movie studios following suit, the future looks blue for Toshiba and its HD-DVD format. In fact, Toshiba has announced that it would cease production of HD-DVD players entirely. Blu-ray has become the de rigeur sexy upgrade from DVD (or VHS, if you've spent the first part of this century on some desert island). And that's the thing: there will always be format wars, winners, upgrades, disappointments, triumphs, technology. No matter how much the 21st century is moving towards doing everything digitally and downloading your music and movies as zeros and ones from some anonymous entertainment server, people still love gadgets. You cannot wrap a download and put it under the Christmas tree. Well, you can probably wrap a download gift card, but that's just not the same; it's the gift that shows you cared enough to do the very least... And for the afficionados, the quality of downloads is still miles behind. Audiophiles wouldn't dream of polluting their ears with 128kbps MP3s, exclaiming, "There are so many gaps, the loss of information from the sound is a crime. I'd rather listen to something authentic." And then return to their scratchy 78s, implausibly. Personally, I love new technology, the fruit of format wars. I love my collection of Super Audio CDs, for example, another Sony brainchild that makes DVD-Audio sound like 8-track tape. Although, the SACD format has been slightly less well supported than I'd like it to be. History repeats itself.

10 comments:

Inarticulate Fumblings said...

I was at HMV the other day and saw a massive bin of 2/$50 HD/DVD movies. The very fact they were in that bin made them look pathetic.

We were one of those families that had a Beta machine. Though I didn't know it at the time, I could sense that something was wrong when we stood at that one, solitary wall you were describing... alone... while everyone else became bored before they could make it through all of the VHS titles. I couldn't figure out why I was embarrassed but I was.

I can hear my dad now, catching me before I started spotting the VHS tapes... "How about Annie! You liked Annie last time!!"

jason evans said...

I resisted those new-fangled CD things for a while. Damn, they were expensive when compared to cassettes.

The takeover of the store was slow, but inevitable.

Claire said...

When I think of how much technology
has changed our lives, my head spins around. I'm not a luddite, but I must admit a certain reluctance when the fam gets a cell phone up-grade. I'm thinking, oh no, I have to learn a new phone!
Now that's easier too thanks to those handy little sim cards. Being born at the tail end of the baby boomers I can still remember blk&white tv, party line phones and how a trip to the brand new shopping mall required dressing up in your finest. OK, I feel really old now...
(thank you for your kind comment over at my blog)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

inarticulate fumblings: I read somewhere that Best Buy has some kind of voucher scheme going on for all the unfortunate souls who bought HD-DVD players from them in the last year or so. I'm sorry you were forced to be a serial Annie-renter.

jason evans: cassettes always were hideous; my sister would borrow mine and them return them months later, their magnetic guts spilling from the spools. Couldn't get rid of 'em fast enough. I still purchase vinyl, every once in a while. It's the one format that'll never die.

claire: I agree with the whole phone thing. I miss the Ericsson W800 I had to abandon back home, and resent the Samsung clamshell I had to settle for here everytime I look at it.

Lisa said...

There's a fine balance to be achieved when choosing to adopt new and improved technologies. Since I work for a hardware/software manufacturer, I've learned never to rush out to buy new gadgets first -- most of the time. The best technologies rarely win in the commercial market and it's taking less and less time for pricey new technology to quickly improve in quality and drop in price. I had my last Blackberry (which was my second one) for nearly four years and finally let my company replace it last week when our IT guy saw it at a recent sales meeting and realized it was "the oldest one in the fleet".

I do succumb to temptation on occasion though. I recently bought a Kindle from Amazon and it's very cool. I know what you're thinking and yes -- I love "real" books too, but there's something to be said for a gadget like a Kindle if you travel frequently and read voraciously. It merely compliments the "real" books when I'm on the move, it doesn't replace them.

I heard that Apple has already vastly improved the iPhone -- couldn't understand the number of people literally waiting in lines to buy them on release day!

It's all a gamble, isn't it?

ChristineEldin said...

So much of this I don't understand. My biggest concern is all those home movies of the kids will cost a fortune to convert, if that's even possible by then. I already paid once to convert from those 8mm tapes to a DVD. sigh...

Triggermap said...

Heh, I was of the betamax ilk too - suprised in retrospect that it never 'beat' VHS because the tapes were smaller. I think our Betamax machine was Sanyo and not Sony though.

P.S. I'm still alive but scarce as I dont have a home PC at the moment...

Shimmerrings said...

... how quickly we do run... into the arms of... those who tease us with their toys...

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

lisa: wise words spoken from experience, I bet. However, I subscribe to the notion that, if you keep waiting for the next next-big-thing, you'll never upgrade anything. And never go for first-generation anything, I say: always wait for the first punters to find the bugs, and then pounce on the cheaper, better 2nd/3rd generation gadgets.

christineeldin: aah, but how many hours of footage can you fit on that DVD? And, laser rot aside, wouldn't it last a lot longer than stretchy, grainy 8mm?

triggermap: Sanyo has been around since the '50s, so it's quite possible; although the downfall of Betamax was that Sony didn't allow many other companies the license to manufacture players for it.

shimmerings: but they're so shiny!

Twanji Kalula said...

It seems like it's going to take sometime before it affects us here. Though i read an article like this yesterday in the papers...

It's interesting that as a collector you are quite keen on new formats. Do you plan to re-buy your entire collection?