They Just Don’t Make Format Wars Like They Used To…

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By: Steve Vonder Haar

At the dawn of the online multimedia age in the late 1990s, analysts and reporters alike spilled plenty of ink discussing the relative merits of Real Networks’ Real Player in comparison with Microsoft’s NetShow software that ultimately paved the way to Microsoft’s Windows Media player.

In that narrowband era that would run through the year 2000, endless debates ensued on which player provided better quality and which software should be used most often.

Like virtually every other sector of technology, this little corner of the webcasting universe has changed dramatically.

Today, format fights still rage even though the names of some of the primary combatants have changed. Now, Adobe and Apple cross swords, while the likes of Google and Microsoft work to tilt format issues in their own favor. Look behind the curtains and you’ll see high-stakes jockeying for market position that makes the format wars of yesteryear look like a game of tiddlywinks.

Yet few pay attention to these battles. The average online viewer can basically ignore these format skirmishes thanks to advances in transcoding and encoding technology and service offerings. Today it is easier and cheaper for companies to transcode and store content that can play on virtually any device at any time. Despite the format battles, end users are accessing the content they want with minimal muss and fuss.

But that doesn’t make video producers immune from multimedia format risk when distributing their content online. The difference today is that the technology decisions move further up the food chain. In the early days, end users had to take an active role in selecting the software player they used to experience online media content. Today, end users just click the play button and let intelligent systems in the background determine the video format and correct bit rate to be served up for their viewing.

But that experience doesn’t happen by magic. It is the result administrators and IT executives selecting and deploying technology platforms able to adapt to a never-ending series of changes influencing the course of the online audio and video marketplace.

And even today, deployment decisions for technology platforms enabling the distribution of online audio and video cannot be taken lightly. While most systems deployed today will support the formats popular in today’s market, sophisticated decision makers must also worry about implementing systems able to adapt to the formats that loom on the horizon.  For example, the jury is still out on how HTML5 will shape the direction of online video.

As was the case in the 1990s, it remains difficult to predict the course and outcome of the multimedia format wars. Making the right technology decisions today, however, can help your organization keep from being one of the casualties as these format fights continue in the shadows.

Steve Vonder Haar is a Senior Analyst at Wainhouse Research and can be reached at


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