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The Fractious Eighties: Videodiscs, PCs, and CDs

After all the new tech introduced in the 1970s, the 1980s was more about refining these developments than introducing totally new technology. We saw more and better VCRs, the rise of the modern-day personal computer industry, and a plethora of powerful videogame consoles.

Most households in the 1980s had a VCR and at least one videogame console—and you had to choose sides. This was the decade of the "format wars." In the VCR arena, the two competitors were Beta and VHS. By most accounts, Beta was the superior technology, but VHS had the most supporters—including Panasonic, Sharp, JVC, Mitsubishi, and industry-leading RCA. In contrast, Beta was supported primarily by Sony (the format's developer), with a few smaller players such as Toshiba and Sanyo along for the ride. By the end of the decade, VHS was the clear winner, with many video stores carrying only that format.

Another format war simmered mid-decade, when competing videodisc formats tried to nudge their way into the home. RCA's CED videodisc system competed with the Laserdisc format pioneered by MCA, Philips/Magnavox, and Pioneer (see Figure 11). Given that videodiscs in general failed to make much headway against the established VCR technology, declaring a winner is difficult, although Laserdisc held on through the early 1990s, while RCA pulled the plug on its CED system in 1984.

Figure 11 A top-loading Magnavox Laserdisc player. (By Marcin Wichary from San Francisco, U.S.A., licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

On the videogame front, the early 1980s saw the venerable Atari 2600 duke it out with Mattel's Intellivision and Coleco Industries' ColecoVision. Coleco had superior technology, but Atari was on an unstoppable roll—until everything crashed. Industry sales collapsed in 1982, driven by the introduction of too many derivative or poor-quality game cartridges from too many manufacturers. Many third-party game developers went out of business during this period, and even established companies lost tons of money on unsold inventory.

Sales stayed dismal until 1985, when Nintendo brought its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to the U.S. market (see Figure 12). The $199 NES was an 8-bit system that shipped with a version of the hit arcade game Super Mario Bros. Nintendo sold more than 3 million NES units in its first two years of release; over its entire product life, it's estimated that more than 65 million NES consoles were sold worldwide, along with 500 million cartridges.

Figure 12 The NES videogame system.

Nintendo wasn't the only videogame system on the market in the late 1980s, of course. This edition of the format wars saw competition from the Atari 7800 and Sega Master System, neither of which made a dent in the Nintendo juggernaut. Nintendo's only real competition was itself, in the form of the GameBoy, the first programmable handheld gaming system, introduced in 1989.

The major new consumer technology in the 1980s was the digital compact disc, CD for short (see Figure 13). Developed by Philips and introduced to the consumer market in 1983, the CD format was designed to replace analog formats, including vinyl discs and magnetic tape. The sound was cleaner, with greater dynamic range, avoiding pops and clicks from surface scratches. The CD format worked via laser technology, which is always cool, and delivered on its promise. The latter half of the decade saw music lovers replacing their vinyl record collections with CD reissues of the same titles (at twice the price). It was a game-changing technology.

Figure 13 Philips' original CD100 compact disc player. (By Nichtvermittelbar, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

The world of personal computing also saw its share of format competition. In the early 1980s, home-based machines such as the Commodore 64 and Apple II competed against business-oriented machines running the CP/M operating system, such as the Osborne 1 and Kaypro II. A higher level of combat was engaged, however, when IBM entered the market with its original IBM PC in 1981 (see Figure 14). The IBM PC ran the new PC Disk Operating System (PC-DOS), and it made huge inroads into the business market. CP/M entered into history by mid-decade, leaving IBM-format PCs to compete head-to-head with Apple's computing system.

Figure 14 The original IBM PC, model 5150. (By Ruben de Rijcke, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Apple was having an interesting decade. Leading with the popular Apple II (succeeded in 1980 by the business-oriented Apple III), the company failed miserably with its first GUI-based computer, 1983's Lisa. A year later, however, Apple introduced the Macintosh (see Figure 15), and the rest is history, with the Mac's progeny still being sold today.

Figure 15 The original Apple Macintosh. (By w:User:Grm wnr, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

All in all, the victor in this decade's computing format wars was IBM—and the legion of IBM clones that rode on the coattails of the company's open hardware specs. Also along for the ride was a little Seattle-based company called Microsoft, which supplied the DOS operating system for every IBM and clone computer sold. Microsoft also got into the software game, releasing its own word processor and spreadsheet programs to compete with the dominant WordPerfect and 1-2-3 applications (which themselves supplanted earlier competitors WordStar and VisiCalc). Microsoft's apps didn't make much headway against the competition in the 1980s, but the 1990s would be a different story.

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