Who doesn't love DVDs? They are cheap, ubiquitous and do their job well. One reason for their instant success is that--unlike the initial situation with videocassette tapes--you never have to worry about whether you're buying the "right"-format DVD: all discs play on all players. Now get ready for a shock: the next generation of DVD, engineered to play high-definition movies, just could become another Betamax-VHS train wreck. As if life wasn't confusing enough, you may have to worry whether the high-def movie you buy is a Blu-ray (supported by Sony, Dell and HP) or an HD-DVD (the choice of Toshiba, Microsoft and Intel).
It's one more round in a tired old game where companies put their parochial concerns ahead of the well-being (and sanity) of consumers. All too often, this doesn't work with that, and the reason usually is that that companies exploit incompatibility between products to extend a competitive advantage. Could it be, for instance, that Microsoft's endorsement of HD-DVD has something to do with the fact that Sony's upcoming Play-Station 3 will use Blu-ray--and if that format is a dud, Microsoft's competing Xbox 360 will benefit?
In honor of this venal tradition, let me present the first "This Won't Work With That" awards, honoring self-serving perpetrators of toxic incompatibilities. There are so many to choose from that some really infuriating conflicts won't be included--the Paul Giamattis of incompatibility--so feel free to write in with your most frustrating examples.
Third prize goes to the satellite radio services Sirius and XM. It's a good idea to offer people the opportunity to subscribe to quality, ad-free radio, but a bad idea to have two systems that don't work with each other. If you like Bob Edwards (XM) and Howard Stern (Sirius), tough luck. And depending on which you choose, you get either baseball or football. Get it together, guys.
Second prize goes to Apple CEO Steve Jobs for selling songs on the iTunes Music Store that play on iPods, but not on anyone else's music players. Also, Apple has rigged the iPod so that (unless you perform some digital surgery) songs purchased from other online stores won't play on it. Jobs's explanation is that it's not something users are asking for, and if a groundswell of users clamor for compatibility, he'll consider it. Take my word for it, Steve--when people pay for music, they want it to be playable on any device they choose.
And the grand-prize winner? America Online, for shamefully maintaining AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) as a closed system. Users can't swap messages freely with all other IM systems, like those of Yahoo or Microsoft (which recently agreed to work together). For years, AOL has also invoked that same lame "our customers aren't asking for it" excuse (as well as a bogus excuse about security). We're supposed to believe that people don't want to send IMs to whomever they chose? Come on. What makes AOL's stance even worse is that when it was trying to persuade the FTC to allow the Time Warner merger, it promised to make AIM work with others. Now that the disastrous deal has been implemented, AOL no longer even pretends it's interested in letting AIM users talk to everybody else.
Congratulations, winners! You're all invited to a very special ceremony, which we'll hold at a remote location that requires multiple connecting flights from different airlines. The prize is a trophy that comes in two pieces that don't really fit together. Sure, we could have had a nice prize without cracks and edges sticking out. But our customers didn't request it.