Why are there so many video and audio formats?

Recently, a commentator posed an interesting question. Why, he wondered, are there so many computer video and audio formats? Why can’t everyone involved take a lesson from the phonograph record? After all, there is only one type of phonograph record and it can be played by any record player.

Although this idea makes sense at first, it has a few historical problems. It is true that any phonograph record you can buy today (assuming you can find one) will play on any record player you can buy. But this is the result of a long process that spanned almost a century.

When Thomas Edison invented his phonograph in 1877, his prototype stored sound on tin foil or waxed tape. When the phonograph became popular with the public in the 1880’s, the “records” it played were wax cylinders. Disc records, what we think of today as records, edged out wax cylinders in popularity by 1910. But wax cylinders were still being sold as late as 1929, and surprisingly, there are still a few companies selling them today.

When it came to the disc records, different players rotated them at different speeds. Some early players went as high as 160 rpm, but manufacturers standardized on 78 rpm (actually 78.2608 rpm) in 1925. 78 rpm replaced other common speeds such as 80 or 82 rpm.

The first “modern” record, playable on a record player you can buy today, dates back to 1948. That was when Columbia Records standardized the 33⅓ rpm format, although there were unsuccessful attempts at using that speed dating back to 1930. In 1949, RCA Victor came out with the 45 rpm record, the other speed supported by a modern record player. Those two competing speeds battled for consumer favor for several years in a dispute that became known as “The War of the Speeds.” The end result was that most record players supported multiple speeds using a switch to change between 45 rpm, 33⅓ rpm, and 78 rpm (and sometimes the rarely used 16⅔ rpm). Support for 78 rpm disappeared after a while, but 45 rpm and 33⅓ rpm remained the standards until the compact disc began to replace the phonograph record in 1982.

Looking at the history, it is clear that it took over 70 years before the modern standards were created. I don’t like to predict history, but I think it is a safe bet that it might take another 70 years before the one definitive video and audio format is standardized.

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