Topsy and the Standards War

Standards are all around us.  Being invisible, it's easy to forget they exist, because they generally work. Only when they don't - or when they threaten not to - do they tend to attract attention. One sad example of that reality was the subject of an excellent Nova special that focused on the role of construction and safety standards in the context of the failure of the Twin Towers on 9/11. And now, standards have become The Talk of the Town. The opening pages of the New Yorker may seem like an unlikely venue for an essay on standards, given that the Talk section is usually dedicated to a consciously eclectic mix of editorial outrage and stylishly constructed vignettes celebrating the trivial. Nonetheless, the advent of competing next-generation DVD format players has inspired even the New Yorker to take notice. Of course, hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of articles on the same topic have already appeared almost everywhere else that they possibly could. Be that as it may, the article in question is entitled "Standard-Bearers," and opens smartly in true Talk of the Town fashion as follows:

In 1888, at Thomas Edison's laboratory, in West Orange, New Jersey, a macabre event took place. While reporters watched, dogs were placed on a metal plate that had been hooked up to a thousand-volt alternating-current generator and electrocuted one by one. Edison wanted to convince the public that alternating current (which was offered by a competitor, Westinghouse) was too dangerous to be used in the home, and his own direct-current technology should be the national standard for electricity.

Edison's tactics may have been extreme, but his purpose would have been readily understood by the marketers of Sony's Blu-ray technology and those of Toshiba's HD DVDs: both companies are trying to convince us that their product will be the standard high-definition successor to DVDs.

And indeed, the competition and the tactics of these combatants and their allies have been fierce and ongoing for years at this point.  The New Yorker presents a competent, if brief, review of the story to date and its consequences, and is worth a read if this is not a saga that you have been following.

Curiously, the New Yorker piece does not refer to an even more notorious stunt Edison staged to convince the public that alternating current was too dangerous to welcome into the home. As delicately described by, a rampaging Coney Island elephant offered Edison a rare photo op:

Topsy offered an opportunity that Edison couldn’t resist. What better way to demonstrate the horrible consequences of alternating current than to roast a full-grown elephant?

One hopes for Topsy’s sake that the photo of her taking the juice was doctored by the Wizard of Menlo Park for maximum effect. If not, perhaps the editors of the New Yorker thought that the image (imagined or otherwise) of Topsy being roasted might be deemed to be a bit over the top by Sony’s and Toshiba’s libel lawyers.

Be that (again) as it may, the image of Topsy, eye a-rage and with steam and flames streaming in every direction, may accurately portray the future emotions of those that find that they have bought next generation DVD players built to whichever format loses the standards war. Just as Betamax buyers saw their investment in player and tapes go down the tubes, so will some significant number of consumers find that they have backed the wrong format horse this time around.  Some years hence, what you see at yard sales and swap sheds will tell the tale.

Of course, the two camps could agree to a standard that would allow cross-platform interoperability, but that seems unlikely at this late date, even though it would allow a bigger market to emerge more quickly.

Or, perhaps, people will be smart enough to just sit this standards war out. It would be only fitting if high-quality broadband movie downloads are soon able to offer a more attractive option, mooting the HD-DVD – BluRay bloodbath entirely, and leaving the patent owners, instead of their hoped-for customers, steaming like Topsy.

For more on standards wars, see the March issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin

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Comments (1)

  1. I have to come to Edison’s defence here. He did not kill Topsy the elephant..The stunt was done at Coney Island for getting crowds there and to make it a great show. Thomas Edison left the electrical industry by 1894 and was not longer involved with it. The Topsy killing was in 1903 nearly 10 years after Edison was out of the industry. It is rather sad that Ediison gets blamed for Topsy’s end but it was not him..

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