What Will Be The Legacy of Legacy Formats?

Recent reports of the demise of the compact disc feature elegies tinged with funereal nostalgia for what was once a bold, new and literally shiny technology.  Those might as well have been elegies for all physical media including the CD’s video packaged-media analogues: DVD and Blu-ray. Neither of which is quite ready for a final burial but with advancements in streaming services and cloud storage, they now seem anachronistic.

The rise, peak, decline and fall of the CD follows the predictable circle of the physical format’s life, which is generally generational—20-40 years in all, but a few unusual cases.

But over the last decade-plus, formats have evolved rapidly as software and transport technologies play a greater role. They are constantly being born, maturing, aging and dying and—by virtue of software properties—are more easily disposable, further complicating how they are developed, implemented and sold.

And worst of all, this constant format transitioning can increase compatibility questions.

Examples of this format explosion include compression formats like HEVC/H.265 poised to replace 2K-centric MPEG-2/4-based compression for broadcast and streaming. HEVC-derived HEIF threatens to supercede the venerable JPEG, GIF and PNG digital photo formats. There’s not one, not two, but three different High Dynamic Range (HDR) technologies, at least.

Then there’s the transport and distribution market. HDMI remains the primary physical interconnect for moving digital video to TVs, but both HDMI and HDCP formats continue to undergo nearly annual upgrades to support ever-bulging resolution, more complex HDR, higher frame rates, multiplying channel surround sound and heavier copy-protected digital signals. On the wireless side, cellular (5G), Wi-Fi (HaLow) and Bluetooth (5.0, Mesh) are being upgraded to provide speedier and more efficient data flow for smarter homes and smarter mobility.

An Oldie But a Goodie

But a larger question looms for product and content developers and sellers amidst this format overcrowding: As new formats geometrically multiply, what happens to legacy formats? As more efficient formats are unleashed, the difficulty of deciding which legacy formats sliding down the back end of their bell curve to support (or not) in new products increases compatibility problems.

Some lack of legacy support is profit-purposeful. For instance, a consumer with a new 4K/UHD TV won’t be able to use a DVD player because his new TV doesn’t include the component video jacks necessary to connect the two. That consumer will have to upgrade to a Blu ray or UHD Blu ray player to play his old DVDs. Or, replace said old DVDs with new BD or 4K Blu-ray versions.

Other support continues more out of momentum or technological laziness. For instance, an annoying bulk of smart home products operate only on 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks in an increasingly 5GHz world filling with sometimes compatible mesh Wi-Fi systems.

Then there are legacy formats that simply refuse to yield. New 4K TVs still include familiar white/red/yellow phono/RCA composite analog A/V connectivity capabilities that date back to the 1940s. You can still buy a turntable—including working antique or replica gramophones and needles—to play pre-WWII 78 rpm records. And the venerable Edison base screw-in light bulb format—the one Thomas Edison created with his incandescent bulb nearly a century and a half ago—remains remarkably the oldest continually active technology format.

Finally, and obviously, which legacy formats continue to be supported depends heavily on royalties. This explains, in part, why older formats, whose patents have expired, remain, while more recently displaced formats are often omitted on new gear to keep costs down.

Complex legacy format inclusion decisions often obey practical business criteria to the detriment of marketplace and real-world realities. After business decisions are made, consumers are left to cope with compatibility issues arising from matching old and new formats with old and new devices.

Back in the 20th century, understanding format turnover was simple. After all, an audio cassette tape obviously couldn’t be played in a Blu-ray player. Most of today’s formats, however, are invisible, flung in a steady stream of mysterious alphanumeric acronyms at increasingly glassy-eyed consumers. Even those of us who follow the industry find it difficult to keep up with this format barrage.

While everyone endeavors to adopt the new, it’s critical we keep an eye on the old.