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VCRS and Crypto

At 8:22 PM -0800 9/26/96, jim bell wrote:

>Remember the VHS/Beta VCR wars?  With a fairly equal market in about 1978,
>Beta died 10 years later because the market couldn't support two
>incompatible standards.  It wasn't that one was dramatically better than the
>other, it was simply that having two standards forced the market to
>duplicate stocks, for the machines as well as tapes, particularly
>pre-recorded tapes.  Notice, however, that VCR's are relatively "isolated":
>It doesn't really matter if you have one format and your neighbor has
>another, unless you want to swap tapes.  But crypto telephones inherently
>require (in the long term) full intercompability.  If you didn't have that,
>there'd be half a world of people you couldn't call!

Be careful when drawing conclusions from the "VCR Wars." (BTW, James
Lardner has a book out on this subject.)

There are various interpretations of what happened. While I, for example,
had both formats, I ultimately shelved my Beta unit. Some views often heard:

* The longer recording time of VHS was more compelling to most consumers
than the higher quality of Beta. Not surprising in the late 70s, early 80s,
when most consumers had televisions incapable of showing the difference in
quality. (Even today, most consumers are happy to rent VHS tapes which are
rather "dodgy" in quality.)

* VHS was "Pretty Good Video," and PGV was enough for its time.

* Once VHS took a lead over Beta, the snowball effect took hold. Video
rental stores started to appear in earnest in around 1980, and by then VHS
had enough of a lead over Beta to cause the stores to stock VHS tapes for
rental over Beta tapes. This dramatically widened the lead of VHS over Beta.

(Jim's point: "Notice, however, that VCR's are relatively "isolated":  It
doesn't really matter if you have one format and your neighbor has
another, unless you want to swap tapes." But in fact a large fraction of
all VHS owners use their machines to _rent_ tapes, so the compatibility
with what the many rental stores carry is paramount.)

A tenuous link to crypto is that various VCR formats can still
intercommunicate because they all use NTSC (or PAL, SECAM in some
countries) as the "common language." This is analogous to the way various
flavors of PGP on various platforms can communicate with other flavors
because ASCII text is read and written by all.

As I have argued many times, this was really the Big Win for PGP, that it
did not use an odd or proprietary format that was platform-specific. Such
basic ASCII operation ensures interoperability, and is of course
inconsistent with the government talk of making sure that key-escrow
products cannot interoperate with non-key-escrow or "alternately"-escrowed

--Tim May

We got computers, we're tapping phone lines, I know that that ain't allowed.
Timothy C. May              | Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money,
[email protected]  408-728-0152 | anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero
W.A.S.T.E.: Corralitos, CA  | knowledge, reputations, information markets,
Higher Power: 2^1,257,787-1 | black markets, collapse of governments.
"National borders aren't even speed bumps on the information superhighway."