A format war occurs when many different, incompatible standards emerge in the market for one technology. This can happen for various reasons; the formats' backers may feel the opposition is technically inferior, they may feel there is less financial advantage, may simply not like their competition very much. As so often occurs in business, politics plays an important part in bringing products to market, and can (and has) lead to companies deciding to go it alone and introduce their own alternatives.
This can be both good and bad for the consumer, in the long and short term. As multiple companies and/or organisations vie for dominance, they will naturally try to attract customers by offering something the competition doesn't. Price drops can make one format attractive, only to be met by a plunge by the other formats to match. Special features can be added to make an already good format even better. However, just as much bad can happen: what if you buy into the wrong format and are left stranded when it fails? At one point in the early 1980s, Betamax VCRs sold more than their rivals, and yet today the format is considered the canonical failure.
Unified formats help reduce confusion, too - so long as you happen to own a DVD player, you can be sure that DVDs purchased in the same region (another problem, but I digress) will play on it. All DVD-branded discs are guaranteed to play, no matter who built your player or how much you paid for it.
Winning or Losing
As in sport, there are often distinct winners and losers in a format war. Occasionally there can be a general stalemate or draw, where the incompatible formats either become interchangeable or simply carve out a stable share of the market between them; this is rather more rare than outright dominance by one format over the other(s).
A winner can generally be seen fairly early on in the product's lifespan; as more customers choose to buy into new technology, they will inevitably have to choose a side, and one will usually persuade greater numbers. The lead can still change, however, and being first to market does not ensure eventual victory.
Format wars are not a historical phenomenon; sadly, there are still some ongoing, and may well be more to come.
- Vinyl records (1940s) : 33 1/3 rpm vs. 45 rpm
While today we think of vinyl records as having two different speeds, when first introduced each speed was thought of as a different format entirely, with some record players supporting one and some the other, both attempting to supersede the old shellac 78 rpm discs. 7 inch 45 rpm records, introduced by RCA Victor, emulated 78s by having enough capacity for a single song per side, while being smaller and more resistant to damage. Columbia supported their own 'microgroove' 33.3 rpm 12-inch records, with up to 30 minutes' playing time a side. In the end, this format ended with a compromise: 45 rpm became used for 'singles', while 33.3 rpm was used for record albums. This continues to this day.
- Portable audio (1960s) : 8-track vs. Compact Cassette
A clear victory for the Philips-developed Compact Cassette format. 8-track cartridges were introduced first and saw success particularly for in-car audio. Compact cassettes, however, were readily recordable, offered greater fine control, and (in my opinion) better sound quality, forcing the 8-track out and continuing to hold dominance over the newly-emerging portable and recordable music industry well into the 1990s.
- Video cassettes (1970s-80s) : Betamax vs. VHS vs. Video 2000
Sony had led a consortium of companies in creating the U-matic professional video system, which still finds some use occasionally today. Thanks to unity between competitors it became the established standard, and Sony hoped to continue this unity in the home video market. They miniaturised the U-matic tapes into the paperback-sized Betamax - so named because the tape within the cassette shell looks like a Greek letter beta.
Sony presented a prototype of their Betamax system to the other companies in '74, hoping they would back their system. This time, the others decided to resist, and two notable competitors emerged, one of which would come to utterly dominate the market. Philips reworked their successful Compact Cassettes into Video 2000, a videotape that could be turned over just like an audio tape, eventually offering an unequalled 16 hours' recording time. JVC designed their own VHS system, and the race was on.
Contrary to popular belief, Sony did licence Betamax to others, notably Sanyo (who branded theirs 'Betacord'). But JVC were far more prolific, allowing cheaper and more machines than Sony. Sony were also famously unwilling to allow pornography on Beta; today observers belief porn will make or break a video format. VHS won, and Sony eventually admitted defeat in 2002.
- Digital audio (1980s-90s) : DAT vs. DCC vs. Minidisc
As CDs usurped vinyl as the leading prerecorded audio format, a number of digital replacements for the now ageing analogue tape formats emerged. Philips introduced the backwards-compatible Digital Compact Cassette, which squared off against Sony's tape format, Digital Audio Tape (DAT). While DAT won the victory of the digital tape formats, neither saw great consumer usage, although DAT continues to be used in the production process and for computer backup. Minidisc, another Sony format, saw greater market penetration, particularly in Europe; its small magneto-optical discs provide the flexibility of CD but are even more portable. MD couldn't reach the same success as the analogue compact cassette, however.
- Recordable DVDs (2000s) : DVD+R vs. DVD-R
While the prerecorded DVD format is supported by all, recordable DVDs are split into different factions. An excellent node on this already exists on E2 here.
- High-definition DVDs (2000s) : HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray Disc
As with recordable DVDs, companies are split between different formats for high-definition pictures and sound. HD-DVD is backed by the DVD Consortium, touted as the successor of DVD, whilst Sony leads the pack with its Blu-Ray format. At the moment both are in their infancy, with standard definition DVDs continuing to overwhelmingly outsell either. LG has developed and will be introducing a dual-format player, which could render this war moot as with the recordable DVDs; naturally, both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray have recordable versions as well!