Browse Definitions:

format war

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

A format war, sometimes known as a standards war, is a competition for market dominance -- and often survival -- between two or more producers of a particular type of technology.

Format wars often start when multiple manufacturers create non-interoperable proprietary technologies designed for a particular purpose. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, the VHS and Betamax formats competed for the VCR (video cassette recorder) market. For complex legal reasons, VHS eventually came to dominate the market, despite widespread acknowledgement that Betamax was the superior product. Despite the fact that the whole VCR industry is long since defunct, the format war between the two products was so intense that people still sometimes say a product was betamaxed when it loses out to an inferior technology as a result of marketing, influence or some other factor unrelated to quality.

Format wars are commonly understood to create market fragmentation and hamper technological progress. They can also be confusing to the customer and lead to delayed purchases or problems with incompatible products.

Here are a few more examples of prominent format wars:

Blu-ray became the default optical disk standard for HD content and optical data storage after winning a format war with HD-DVD, the format promoted by Toshiba and NEC.

In the early years of word processing software, Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect competed for market dominance. (Word won that battle, although WordPerfect is still used.)

The perennial browser wars are a special case of format war. The first browsers to go head-to-head, in the late 1990s, were Internet Explorer (IE) and Netscape Navigator. IE dominated, but usage has declined to the extent that it is no longer competitive. Navigator no longer exists but Netscape started the open source Mozilla project, which eventually resulted in the Firefox Web browser. Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari and Opera are currently engaged in the browser wars, which Chrome is currently winning.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a new arena for format wars. Multiple formats compete, for example, for device connectivity and management in the smart home market, which is something consumers need to keep in mind if they are developing their own home automation systems rather than buying a smart home kit.

This was last updated in October 2015

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