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Formats That Fail You

This morning's column talks about one of my lingering frustrations with the business that I cover--the apparently perpetual need to buy new copies of my favorite movies and music.

I'm not talking about "special editions" of movies or remastered versions of albums that add content or quality, but copies of the same old albums in new formats--not all of which survive in the market. HD DVD is the latest such loser, but there have been many others.

I noted a few losers of format wars in the piece--MiniDisc, DVD-Audio and Super Audio Compact Disc--but a complete inventory of just the last 10 years' worth of failed formats would have to include such lesser-known contenders as D-VHS videotapes, Divx video discs, DataPlay music discs. (Note: A reader just e-mailed me to protest that SACD is not really dead, considering the manufacturers and labels that still support the format.)

I am all for continued progress in the electronics business, but I'm tired of being asked to think like a venture capitalist when I consider a new format's viability. So how do you reconcile those two goals? Two words: open standards. The MP3, AAC and JPEG files on my computers work in a wide variety of software and hardware and will keep doing so for the foreseeable future. I cannot say the same for songs and movies bought off the iTunes Store, the Zune Marketplace or another download emporium that have been wrapped up in a proprietary system of "digital rights management."

(I'm not opposed to DRM everywhere. I think it's a fair way to enforce time limits on rentals of movies or other content. But in that case, nobody's asking me to pretend that I own something that will stop working if one company decides it doesn't need to support a DRM system anymore.)

What I don't know is whether the conclusion of today's column read as the kind of patently obvious suggestion that can only be greeted with "duh," or a bout of unrealistic hopemongering. What say ye?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 28, 2008; 10:56 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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Comments

I think it's clear that a market based on re-purchase is what the music industry has been after for some time--since the glory years of 1985-1993, when the shift to CDs brought massive profits for essentially no additional work.

The overriding goal since then has been to bring about a new format switch. And the most important thing they want in a new format--call it "format X"--will be that going from "format X" to its replacement "format Y" will require yet another re-purchase.

Fortunately they let the cat out of the bag with CDs. CDs were assumed to be--like LPs--impossible for mere mortals to produce or copy. And in 1984 a 5MB hard drive cost over $1000 while an album-length CD had hundreds of MB of data.

If they had somehow made a switch to a CD-compatible "format X" in 1990--or if they had convinced computer manufacturers to use a different optical drive that would not actually read music CDs--they might have had a chance to keep things locked down. But the long-term effect of the CD revolution was to widely circulate unprotected digital music content, and there's no way to get it out of circulation.

The massive profits of the CD transition were basically a one-time event--digital recordings do not degrade, so CDs never "need" to be replaced.

Once you hit the point where intangible data is what matters, the producers end up against a brick wall. Even if they add layers of encryption and protection, users have to be able to decipher the data to view or hear the content. And software players don't break and need to be replaced like hardware turntables and CD players.

So on the whole I think the conclusion is on the right track--the attempt to shift to a repeated re-purchase model has more or less failed, and most digital purchases will stay usable for a long time.

Posted by: Dave Scocca | February 28, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

The case of SACD deserves some additional comment, for non-trivial reasons. There's evidence that SACD not only hasn't failed, but that it's thriving as a niche format. Sony, of course -- one of the format's inventors -- abandoned it long ago. Yet, though I don't know the latest numbers, companies continue to turn to the format, especially producers of classical music.

So, why has SACD taken this interesting turn? Because music consumers aren't homogeneous; we really do have differentiated needs. In particular, SACD appeals to more sophisticated music fans who aren't impressed by massive compression and loud, rattling bass. And because "hybrid" disks are the norm, so the only cost of purchasing an SACD instead of a standard CD is a couple of extra bucks; SACD-purchasers can still (usually) listen on thir IPods, or copy the music to servers, if they want to.

It's true that the music industry hasn't yet offered the mainstream market anything to lure it away from CDs (except low-rez, compressed downloads). And I have no idea how the music industry can put the cat back in the bag, or find some other route to profitability.

But I feel pretty sure that they'll never succeed unless they come to respect their consumers and take their jobs seriously. By which I mean, 1. They need to stop suing their biggest fans, 2. They need to acknowledge that not all their fans want the same thing, and 3. They need to start realizing that their product is music--new, interesting, fun-to-listen-to music--and not a shiny (or black, or whatever) plastic disc. SACD is an example of parts of the industry giving a small group of consumers what it wants and is willing to pay for: Better sound. Now, if they can start delivering better music, people will start buying it again.

Posted by: Jim Austin | February 28, 2008 12:41 PM | Report abuse

First, a disclaimer about my comments....I'm not a Sony employee nor am I employed in the consumer electronics/music field.

Several comments regarding Mr. Austin's reply. ....

1. Sony, in the US, has not abandoned the format. Sony has supported SACD by releasing the classic "Living Stereo" series of classical recording on SACD. Additionally, Sony has also released new classical recordings on SACD in 2007. A new SACD released has already been announced for 2008. I made the point about the US because Sony in Japan is much more supportive of the format. The last 3 months of 2007 saw Japan Sony released over 20 SACD titles from the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Leonard Bernstein. As for SACD hardware, you can go to any Best Buy and pick up a Sony SCD-CE595 for $150.00 (or less).

2. Anyone with an interest in SACD should visit sa-cd.net. The website is a private website that documents almost all SACD releases....and the format is about to cross the 5,100 title mark for worldwide releases. And that still doesn't include the titles that aren't listed on that site. sa-cd.net is the de-facto reference for SACD, to the point that even Sony itself refers to it in its own press releases. In contrast, based on a San Francisco/cnet.com article from this past Monday, Blu-ray titles only numbered about 500 after 2 years. Meanwhile, there were at least 744 new SACD titles released in 2007.

3. The reason for SACD's failure as a mainstream format was that it was introduced as the wrong time....when downloads became the mainstream preference for music medium. While SACDs at first cost more than regular CDs, that's not the case anymore.

Posted by: Danny Tse | February 28, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

So how long before we go to Blu-ray size digital movies? Right now, that seems prohibitively large (I may be mistaken). Just wondering if I should buy Blu-Ray discs at all.

Posted by: joy | February 28, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I bought an HD-DVD player last November. At the time, I sent off for a firmware update disc from Toshiba. Thought that disc was NEVER going to come. It finally arrived last Friday, AFTER Toshiba announced the death of the format.

(Not 100% related to the topic, but not that many places left to talk about HD-DVD issues.)

Posted by: Roy | February 28, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Dave Scocca and Jim Austin nailed it.

I will say that I converted from LP+Cassette to CD+CDR in the 90's. Then in the early part of this century I ripped all the mix CDs I had to MP3s. Even though I've been using iTunes for a year now the vast majority of my music is MP3.

The other formats were (as Jim said) niche formats. Lots of Grateful Dead tapers used DAT or MiniDisc, for example. But those formats weren't going to replace cassettes for most of us. CDR did that.

Those other formats (except for audiophiles, as Jim also said) weren't good enough to replace CDs. CDs (and, for that matter, MP3s) being Good Enough.

Now, of course, we can record directly to hard drives, or solid state drives, and DAT and MiniDisc will fade from the scene.

Video has the advantage over audio, for the corporations, that bandwidth is limited and everyone can't download video the way they download audio. YouTube isn't a replacement for HDTV. Heck, it isn't a replacement for SDTV. As consumer bandwidth increases video downloading becomes a more reasonable proposition but, for now, it isn't. Also, with DVDs I get little content that I don't want, with music downloads I get the one song I want, while with CDs I get one good song, and 10 crappy ones.

Not forgetting that when I buy a DVD and rip it to the Mac to play it I then have a backup (the original DVD) in case something bad happens. My iTunes library (and anything else I download, plus pictures) has to be backed up to a disk. So I continue to buy DVDs.

----------
Which brings me to this:
Home backup solutions for very large (1/4 terabyte and more) hard drives are going to become an issue eventually.

How do I do an offsite backup of several thousand 8MP images (from my Canon Digital Rebel XT) and my iTunes library? Everything else I want to save (10 years of eamil, various text and word processing files, etc) fits easily on a DVD. The iTunes library (including the MP3s I have) requires 2 DVDs.

The image files are 3MB or more each. I have thousands of them. Another 5 DVDs. Or more. (Thank God I'm not into home video.)

So figure on a full data backup taking 8 to 10 DVDs. Plus you want a spare of each backup, in case of a bad disk. Those two copies go into the safe deposit box at the bank. One more copy stays at home.

Burning 24 to 30 DVDs at a sitting. Oy. There goes a weekend. If only from the disk swapping.

Oh, and figure on rotating the media every couple of years to avoid bit rot. Adding a couple DVDs of data per set. You want your grandkids to be able to look at the pictures someday, right?

Why, no, I'm not doing this. I'm using Time Machine, despite its issues with restores, and hoping for the best.

Another solution I'm considering is using 3 1 TB external hard drives. One goes in the safe deposit box (the full backup), one stays at home for monthly full backups (swapped every six months or so with the one at the bank), and one stays on the Mac for Time Machine.

Posted by: wiredog | February 28, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Wiredog--you're likely on target with the external drive backup plan. At this point, hard drives are large enough and cheap enough that the most reasonable backup strategy is two or three drives.

(My basic plan uses three backup drives: One stays at home for a continuous "live" backup--now using Retrospect, will use Time Machine once I move to Leopard. The other two are external drives which live in my office at work; every so often I take one home overnight to make a current backup.)

I think removable media capacities are so small relative to hard drives that it's no longer even a contest--the way to go is multiple drives.

Posted by: Dave Scocca | February 28, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Dave
One thing I ran into with Time Machine was that it almost (but not quite) did a full restore ("Install from Time Machine backup") properly. "Almost" because it lost track of permissions when restoring mail. The data was there, but I couldn't read it (and some other files) due to a permissions problem. "chmod -R u+rw" fixed it. So beware.

Posted by: wiredog | February 28, 2008 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Hopemongers unite!

Posted by: Arlington VA | February 28, 2008 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Since most DVD players support PAL & NTSC (or could do so for negligible cost), DVD could have made that particular VHS format issue go away.

Sadly no, Sony and others foist region-coding on and continue it with BluRay. It becomes as much a format issue as any other. Ironically the only effect that it has is driving users towards unencumbered pirated material.

Posted by: Mike | February 29, 2008 12:58 AM | Report abuse

What's the lesson here? Don't be an early adopter. Don't be stampeded by p.r. hype into leaping into a new technology which has not been proven or vetted by REPEATED use. Too many people buying BETA products.

Posted by: Paul W | February 29, 2008 9:07 AM | Report abuse

"The unlocked AAC and MP3 files ... sound every bit as good as CDs..."

Nope. Compressed, lossy, digital music offers inferior sound quality, when played on a good stereo system.

Posted by: TomT | February 29, 2008 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Yup. They don't sound every bit as good 'cause they don't have every bit.

On the other hand, I really only notice the difference in jazz and classical recordings, where the actual sound of the instruments being played hasn't been processed to within an inch of its life. (Not that I necessarily object to that processing; just saying. Also, I'm sure there's some regular pop to which this applies, but I don't typically listen to it.)

If I really want to get to know music, I get it on CD and play it through the big stereo.

Posted by: Lindemann | February 29, 2008 11:34 AM | Report abuse

The backup solutions talked about here are interesting, you should also look at inexpense NAS drives that have a minimum of RAID 5. The RAID 5 will allow a disc to fail and be replaced, then it will rebuild the data from the failed drive. I dont think the time machine offers RAID 5 support and therefore just another disk to possibly fail. Look into the Iomega Stor Center Pro. About $750 for a 1 terabyte NAS that nets out to about 750 gig with RAID 5.

Posted by: J@HomeTech | February 29, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Backups are mandatory these days. The time and effort to put data on a huge hard drive is huge. Right now I'm having trouble managing it all with Explorer. You collect music, I collect recipes, millions of them. Plus ebooks and whatever, some music and movies and record conversions. 1 T cost $200. I use four backup externals. Between anti-virus, indexing, downloading and backups there are not enough hours in the day. Almost all bulk processing software shuts down the computer. My anti-virus runs for 6 hours. I predict that computer hard drives will plateau and all data will be stored on the bookshelf. Then the buggers will change the format of the readers and it will all be worthless.

Posted by: Bud | February 29, 2008 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Just a few comments:

1. Without early adopters, no new format could possibly succeed and we'd still be getting our recorded content on wax cylinders.

2. It's kind of fun to think of failed formats. Remember CAV and CLV laser video disks? They used to rent and sell them at the unfortunately also failed Tower Records. Failed formats provide whole oceans of material for antiquers.

3. I have both a Blu-Ray and an HD-DVD player (it was a lot cheaper to get one of each than one of those dual-format jobs). Both came with an offer of five free disks through the mail. I received my five Blu-Ray disks promptly. Fourteen weeks later I am still waiting for my five free HD-DVD disks that were promised in a maximum of ten weeks.

I called the Toshiba rebate number after the ten weeks expired and was informed that my order was "qualified" and had been received in mid-November, and my disks would be shipped shortly. After four more weeks I called again, and this time I was also told that my offer qualified, but that it had been received in mid-DECEMBER, and again would be shipped shortly. Another two weeks has elapsed. The format has now expired, and still no disks.

I am really not happy about it. I have so many Toshiba products in my home that it's almost silly (the HD-DVD player, two TVs, a VCR, two DVD players, and a laptop computer), but it is doubtful that there will ever be any others in the future. It's a competitive world out there, and lying to me causes me to turn elsewhere for my products.

Posted by: Woody Smith | March 1, 2008 6:16 AM | Report abuse

Just a few comments:

1. Without early adopters, no new format could possibly succeed and we'd still be getting our recorded content on wax cylinders.

2. It's kind of fun to think of failed formats. Remember CAV and CLV laser video disks? They used to rent and sell them at the unfortunately also failed Tower Records. Failed formats provide whole oceans of material for antiquers.

3. I have both a Blu-Ray and an HD-DVD player (it was a lot cheaper to get one of each than one of those dual-format jobs). Both came with an offer of five free disks through the mail. I received my five Blu-Ray disks promptly. Fourteen weeks later I am still waiting for my five free HD-DVD disks that were promised in a maximum of ten weeks.

I called the Toshiba rebate number after the ten weeks expired and was informed that my order was "qualified" and had been received in mid-November, and my disks would be shipped shortly. After four more weeks I called again, and this time I was also told that my offer qualified, but that it had been received in mid-DECEMBER, and again would be shipped shortly. Another two weeks has elapsed. The format has now expired, and still no disks.

I am really not happy about it. I have so many Toshiba products in my home that it's almost silly (the HD-DVD player, two TVs, a VCR, two DVD players, and a laptop computer), but it is doubtful that there will ever be any others in the future. It's a competitive world out there, and lying to me causes me to turn elsewhere for my products.

Posted by: Woody Smith | March 1, 2008 6:17 AM | Report abuse

Rob, we aging Baby Boomers have the perfect antidote to all those new hi-def music and video formats -- our ears and eyes can't tell the difference anymore, so we don't need them to enjoy our movies and tunes. In other words, we are effectively immune to hi-tech upgrades because we don't get enough benefits.

Personally, I transferred 6,500 songs from my CD collection of 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's music to mp3 for my iPod, and then augmented them with several hundred iTune purchases. For the most part, they sound better now than when I learned to love them. Most of the music recorded before the digital age was fuzzy by today's standards, and the basic rule of recording is that a copy never exceeds the quality of the original. Combined with the practical way most of us listen to music (e.g in the car, through a mediocre stereo, or on cheap headphones walking around in a world full of ambient noise), those extra few precious decibels of clear sound are lost anyway.

As for video, I bought a nice big Sony HDTV with an HDMI input that upgrades my existing collection of DVD's well enough to suit my tastes. I have a nice comfy chair in a family room for watching, but the lighting and acoustics will never equal the quality of super-spec entertainment gear. Sure, my eyes can still appreciate the higher quality of an HD football game or some of the new HD content on cable, but it's not enough to spur me to purchase Blu-Ray.

Ultimately, the purpose of media and hi-tech equipment is satisfying personal entertainment. If people do an honest evaluation of their habits and physical limitations, very few of us need all the super-tech stuff being peddled.


Posted by: jbc3 | March 1, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

The music industry is poised for the biggest shift in its revenue model since recorded music displaced sheet music as the primary revenue source in the 1930's. Very soon, you won't be able to buy music any more, just license it for a limited time. The model that has applied to commercial users of music for years will now be extended to home listening.

The most common model for retail businesses -- bars, restaurants, offices -- has been the site license, where licensees pay a flat monthly fee for the right to use an unlimited amount of licensed work in their businesses. This fee doesn't cover the actual media or the technology for the reproduction of the music, just the rights to use the intellectual property inherent in the music.

The technology is in place for such a system for households. It's easy to imagine a world where music companies exist only for rights administration, and the technical aspects of getting the music into households is a problem for consumers and their ISP's to figure out. Copyright owners will compete to get their music to consumers, to maximize their share of the licensing pot. Consumers will go for monthly subscription to be free of the hassle of managing their own music collections.

The consumer license will be enforced the same way that commercial licenses are enforced today -- by a combination of civil and criminal laws, coupled with enabling technology. If you want a look at the future of music, look at Great Britain's television licensing. It is currently a criminal offense in the UK to view television without paying an annual license fee.

I'll even predict what that monthly consumer license will be: $10 per month per household. This is the amount that consumers spent to purchase recorded music in 1999, the highest year on record.

Posted by: Observer | March 1, 2008 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Wiredog, do not despair. Each DVD+R DL disc will hold a couple hundred of your raw 8MP files. They only need to be archived once, so this is not a recurring hassle, if you do it regularly, on, say, laundry day.

Archive the edited files separately; there will be fewer of them and most of them will will be smaller files. Again, each file only needs to be archived once, so doing it regularly should take the pain out.

For routine regular backups of emails, documents, etc., use 8GB flash drives; (slow?) ones can easily be found for $30. They will fit in any safety deposit box, or you can sew them into the lining of your coat. Kidding.

You don't really need to back up the whole hard drive. If the worst happens, it is a good idea to reinstall the operating system and all your applications (and then migrate back your data and settings). The result will be better than cloning the failed system, guaranteed.

Posted by: Solo Owl | March 2, 2008 1:20 AM | Report abuse

The problem with niche products is that good people like Pegoraro forget about them. Even the Post has run articles ridiculing the whole idea of high-end audio.

Some of us old farts still have good hearing (this is the only part of me that isn't failing). We want to hear the music the way it was meant to be heard.

Posted by: Solo Owl | March 2, 2008 1:26 AM | Report abuse

Two words for saving music: Wiretap Studio.

Or the equivalent, if any.

Posted by: Bill Mosby | March 3, 2008 7:34 PM | Report abuse

I think the issue of non-supported formats for music etc simply part of the larger issue of non-supported versions of software in general-- I think when a company no longer supports say Word 6 it should automatically and legally lose all copyrights invested in that format. It's left enough people hanging... and for most people the supposedly improved updates are ridiculously irrelevant.

Any by losing legal rights to all copy of the no longer supported VERSION of its software, I mean it should be hereafter open coded, available to anyone to play with as they will. Once in the junkyard of non support, let the junk-person cobblers do as they will.


Posted by: Richard Sherwin | March 4, 2008 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I have to admit that even though I do understand computers well enough to fix some things I don't really understand all of the different formats of video. What I do understand greatly though is the greed of the different manufacturers. Don't get me wrong now, I am all for improvements to things but do they have to be so expensive? Why too can't the manufacturers make compromises and work with each other? Especially where it concerns television and dvd players/recorders. Instead the little guy in the middle like me gets smashed against the wall so to speak. Anyone else as mad as I am about this issue? Please speak up.

Posted by: Hedgeclippers | March 5, 2008 9:41 PM | Report abuse

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