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Alternate Technologies - A World Without CDs

By Ryan Fleming

How might technology have developed in the latter decades of the twentieth century without the ubiquitous compact disc? What would we have used for our music, then later our data storage, video games, and home video needs from the early 1980s to the early 2000s?

The compact disc (CD) arose as an evolution of LaserDisc technology in the 1970s developed separately by Phillips in Europe and by Sony in Japan. Both companies combined efforts in 1979 and by 1982 the new format saw its first commercial releases. The new format was instantly popular and once cost came down soon eclipsed vinyl records and later magnetic tape cassettes in the home audio market. From its initial success in the music industry further developments in the format would see the introduction of CD-Recordable (CD-R) for data storage including music, CD Read-Only Memory (CD-ROM) for computer software and data and later video game consoles, and eventually the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) that finally eclipsed analogue magnetic tape as the home video medium of choice. To this day where there is a physical medium in use the chance is high that will be on some form of compact disc or a derivative, but would the coalescence of formatting for so many different needs have happened if there had been no compact disc format in the first place? How could the CD have failed to be developed and what might have filled the void left by it?

The CD was not without precedent, it was an evolution of the LaserDisc optical disc analogue video format. It was not developed in isolation but competing companies pooled their efforts to ensure a uniform standard. It could also have been radically different to what was eventually introduced.

In their early development Phillips pursued an analogue optical disc for audio only, that would have been 20cm in diameter (two-thirds bigger than the 12cm compact disc and two-thirds the size of a 30cm LaserDisc). Initial problems in its development led to the suggestion of producing a digital audio format instead, but this was dismissed by their research department and it would take until 1977 before dedicated development of a digital audio format would begin at Phillips. If they were able to develop a satisfactory analogue audio optical disc in the 1970s would this have stolen the thunder of CDs before they were even developed?

But Phillips were not the only company developing such a format. Sony were in some ways leaps ahead of their European competition having a public demonstration of an optical digital audio disc by 1976, a year before Phillips finally committed to digital development. In March of 1979 both companies published details and made demonstrations of their separate formats, but soon a taskforce was set up jointly to develop to a set standard. What if separate development had continued? Would the initial popularity of the format have been possible if there was a brewing format war between Phillips and Sony?

Even if the format still takes off on audio there is no guarantee it would breakthrough into other uses. What if CD-R had run afoul of the recording industry over fears of piracy? When Sony tried to introduce their Digital Audio Tape (DAT) format as a replacement for the compact cassette the recording industry were concerned over the possibility of it being used to pirate high quality reproductions of records, CDs and pre-recorded cassettes. What if CD-R had drawn their ire instead of DAT? DAT suffered from record companies not releasing albums on to the format during the piracy debacle, and the format itself suffered from attempts at copy protection that compromised quality. If the controversy was over CD-R might this have hobbled the CD format as a whole?

Whether by being beaten to the post, have been introduced as two competing standards, or becoming embroiled in a dispute with other aspects of the industry there are several possibilities where the CD might have not taken off as well as it did, but what alternatives were there available for pre-recorded and later recorded music that might have competed with and potentially filled the gap left in the market by the absence of CD dominance?

The CD was developed with the idea that it would be a replacement for the longstanding vinyl record medium in the home music scene. Very quickly it was able to achieve this, and thanks to the development of portable CD players and recordable CDs it had largely displaced the compact cassette too in the 1990s. Without the CD would we still see a division between home high fidelity listening and recorded/portable formats?

With the vinyl revival we have seen since the late 2000s would vinyl records have been able to keep their existing pre-eminence in the commercial distribution of popular music if there was no development of the CD to replace them? This might depend on just how CDs don’t become big. If an analogue optical format is developed this might supplant vinyl records as easily as CDs did; if there are two competing standards of digital audio disc this might slow their replacement until one of the standards becomes dominant; but if CDs are hobbled then we might see CDs and vinyl records exist alongside until well into the 1990s. Without wholesale replacement however we might see an earlier and bigger vinyl revival with any alternate form of CD becoming just another failed replacement that never really took off.

What of the compact cassettes? Even with CDs largely replacing vinyl records in the 1980s the cassette format continued on as a format better suited to home recording and portable listening whether in automobiles or on personal audio devices. In a world without CDs they may have been unlikely to face much competition in the home recording aspect, though both Phillips and Sony made attempts at introducing digital magnetic tape formats in the 1980s and 1990s. Sony’s aforementioned DAT format was hindered by the intransigence of the recording industry and in many ways missed its window of opportunity. Phillips attempted to penetrate both the home recording and portable audio markets with their Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) format in the 1990s but failed to replace analogue cassettes in the former and lost the battle for the latter against another Sony format and was discontinued. Could digital cassettes have succeeded if CD-R had become the antagonist to the recording industry? Might Sony and Phillips even have been able to agree to joint development as they had done with CDs?

DCC failed to make an impact in the market due to a popular format in Japan and Europe based on a magneto-optical disc drive – Sony’s MiniDIsc. The format was first developed in 1983, the year after the launch of the CD but did not take off until the 1990s. Where CDs failed to take off might MiniDisc have launched earlier and filled the market niche left by the absence of CDs? Could we have even seen a three-way split with vinyl records for home listening, digital cassettes for home recording, and MiniDiscs for pre-recorded portable listening? MiniDisc was only promoted by Sony after the failure of DAT so it is perhaps unlikely both formats could be successful, but in the absence of CDs perhaps there would be scope for both.

There are numerous possibilities for music formats that might have taken off or continued in widespread use in the absence of CDs. A big advantage CD had over other formats by the end was that it fulfilled multiple uses. You could listen to it at home on a CD player, on the move in a portable CD player, record music to it, and eventually transfer music files from a computer. With so many formats filling different niches then in the absence of CD might we have seen a quicker move to digital audio files as an all-encompassing music format for every use?

The CD-ROM was one of the earliest developments from the initial audio CD, being developed in 1982 as an adaption of the format that could hold any digital data. It was introduced jointly by Sony and its developer Denon in 1984, like its audio only predecessor the CD-ROM was made to a set standard. On home computers they were soon adapted as an alternative to the ubiquitous floppy drive, but in home video game consoles the transition would be altogether more dramatic.

In the early 1990s most major video game consoles used ROM cartridges as the media format of choice. These were expensive to produce but offered the console manufacturers a greater deal of security that the software/hardware could not be replicated. This combination was abused by Nintendo in the early 1990s by forcing third-party developers to buy cartridges from them in order to develop games and limiting the number of cartridges available. This all changed with the introduction of CD-ROMs in games consoles on the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. Without the availability of CD-ROMs might ROM cartridges and their associated practices have remained the norm in the video game industry? Sony’s entry into the video game market was precipitated by a failed deal with Nintendo for a hybrid disc/cartridge add-on for the Super Nintendo, without this would we have ever seen a new entrant into the market to challenge the Nintendo/Sega duopoly of the early 1990s?

On home computers CD-ROMs had by the late 1990s largely replaced floppy disks as the medium of choice for software, with CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) also available as an archival storage format. Without CD-ROMs might we have seen further development of superfloppy formats such as Iomega’s Zip and Sony’s HiFD formats? The floppy disk was long overdue for replacement, even by the early 1990s large software packages were requiring more than a dozen disks due to their limited capacity. Superfloppy may have served as a replacement but the cost of buying the drives, a lack of backwards compatibility, as well as the Click of Death class action lawsuit of Iomega saw CD-ROMs and to a lesser extent CD-RW become prevalent instead before themselves being quickly supplanted by flash drives. There are still some holdouts for floppy disks however, as recent as 2016 it was reported by the United States Government Accountability Office that the operational functions of the US nuclear forces were being coordinated by computers running 8-inch floppy disks.

On both home consoles and in computers for both software and archiving might the MiniDisc format have been able to carve a niche? In addition to the aforementioned audio MiniDisc developed by Sony there were MD Data discs developed by Sony to replace floppy disks but failed against Iomega’s Zip format. Even as late as 1999 Nintendo were developed a peripheral magnetic disc drive for their ROM cartridge console the Nintendo 64. Might magnetic discs have replaced ROM cartridges on home consoles? Later still in 2004 Sony released the Hi-MD format, capable of storing non-audio data and having a capacity of 1 gigabyte. With multiple applications could MiniDiscs have even become in the 1990s/2000s what CDs became in the 1980s?

In home computing and in video games the CD, through its derivatives the CD-ROM and the CD-RW, became the dominant format as they had in the music industry. In video game consoles their high storage capacity allowed for full-motion video and high-quality audio for the first time. Their lack of expense compared to ROM cartridges allowed the Sony PlayStation to become the dominant console of the late 1990s. To this day two of the three major consoles use media derived from CDs, and optical drives are still included with most desktop computers. Without CDs, both the video game and computing industries would be very different.

One use that CD was never able to gain widespread market penetration of in its initial format was home video. Early attempts such as CD Video in the 1980s were not widely picked up, and the later Video CD only had widespread adoption in Southeast Asia. To resolve any confusion, CD Video was a hybrid between CD and LaserDisc and came in multiple sizes and was soon forgotten failing to appeal to both audio- and cinephiles alike. The latter was developed in the early 1990s but was soon superseded by the much more sophisticated and higher capacity DVD. Only with the introduction of DVDs (digital versatile disc) were optical discs finally able to gain widespread usage as a home video medium.

Without CDs as a precursor, would VHS (video home system) analogue magnetic tape format have been the dominant home video format to the present day? There were predecessor disc formats independent of CD that had failed in widespread adoption. Video High Density (VHD) and LaserDisc were two such formats, both failed to be adopted by more than a very small market share anywhere but Japan. Even in Japan both were rendered to a small cinephile audience that seemingly did not exist in big enough numbers in the US and Europe. The interactivity of both formats was a major influence on the development of the DVD. In the early 1990s high-definition LaserDiscs were even introduced in Japan, but even in Japan usage of the format was reduced upon the introduction of DVD. LaserDisc might have continued in the absence of DVD but would still have been relegated to a cinephile market.

As late as 2004, with DVD dominance already firmly entrenched, there was a development in VHS that might have secured its future were it not already precarious. Digital VHS (D-VHS) used the same recoding mechanisms as a regular VHS but was capable of recording in both standard and high definition formats. The recording versatility offered by D-VHS, in a world without widespread replacement of VHS with DVD, might have seen continued usage of magnetic tape recording into the high-definition television era instead of widespread adoption of digital video recorders (DVR) – especially in the UK where such capabilities were often tied to a subscription television service. Continued usage of physical media for recording might have a knock-on effect of continued physical video rentals, instead of being supplanted by online streaming services.

Without the DVD arising from the CD we might have seen further developments in existing home video media such as LaserDisc and VHS. However, we could just as easily have seen development of a new medium in home video. Perhaps magnetic disk-based video could develop as a dominant format, particularly if it was adopted in widespread usage in computing, music, or video games. On the other hand, we could even see earlier adoption of DVRs as a replacement for VHS. Essentially skipping a new physical media entirely at the expense of some versatility and being unable to support pre-recorded media.

Whether further developments in existing technologies or the introduction of a new medium entirely the absence of the DVD and later the blu-ray creates a gap in the market for high quality home video that might be filled by the first such offering to come along. High-definition LaserDisc would be the earliest but would suffer from an existing lack of adoption outside of Japan. D-VHS has the benefit of being a development of a format already in widespread use but perhaps would come too late. Like other uses without CDs we might see a divergence in formatting depending on use, with pre-recorded media being in one format and home recording in another. Unless digital media is introduced quicker replacing both formats.

How might technology have developed in the latter decades of the twentieth century without the ubiquitous compact disc? What would we have used for our music, then later our data storage, video games, and home video needs from the early 1980s to the early 200s? We might see a greater diversity of media compared to the wholesale adoption of optical discs. In music I might buy an album as a vinyl record to listen to at home and a MiniDisc to listen to on the move, or perhaps I’ll just copy from the vinyl to a digital cassette. Perhaps my video game console takes both ROM cartridges for gameplay and magnetic discs for video and audio, or maybe I use any variety of superfloppy disk on my PC. On movie night perhaps I rent a high-definition LaserDisc from a store, but record television programmes to a high-definition VHS when I am out.

This diversity of formats might lead to a quicker move to non-physical media with the rise of the internet. CDs can be produced relatively cheaply compared with many other formats, so perhaps continued need to pay the costs for caddy-protected magnetic disks, cassette tape cases, and ROM cartridges may give a bigger push for manufacturers to move to non-physical copies of their content as quickly as possible. Without the ubiquitous reflective donut shaped medium physical media as a whole might be more on the way out than we know it. We might have seen in this alternate 2000s or 2010s company after company cease manufacturing physical media in rapid succession. Would this be wholesale, or would we see the equivalents of vinyl revivals for other formats as a result? Perhaps someone would dust off long-forgotten plans for a digital optical disc format as a result, giving us CDs twenty or thirty years too late.



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