The high definition disk format war is basically over, and HD DVD is down for the count. All that’s left is to see if the “winner”, Blu-Ray, will eventually win the bigger battle… taking over for standard DVD as the next generation of entertainment media.
After the surprise announcement several weeks ago by Warner Bros. Studios that it was dropping support for HD DVD and going exclusively Blu-Ray, it’s been one knockout punch after another for HD DVD. In the last week alone, Netflix announced it was dropping HD DVD offerings through their on-line mail based movie rental business, Best Buy said they would recommend and push Blu-Ray over HD DVD, and Wal-Mart, the biggest seller of DVDs in the U.S., will only carry Blu-Ray players and disks. All that led to rumors this week of HD DVD main backer Toshiba shutting down the format completely (Toshiba denied that rumor yesterday, but more rumors of an announcement today abound). UPDATE: The Fat Lady has sung, left the building as is drunk in the bar. Toshiba just announced it has dropped HD DVD production.
HD DVD supporters are in denial, citing all sorts of arguments as to why HD DVD has a chance to come back… but they all ring hollow and reek of spin. No, HD DVD is the chicken with it’s head cut off that is still running around the barnyard… it’s dead but doesn’t know it yet. That’s coming from someone who chose HD DVD over Blu-ray. It’s over.
The Winner: Blu-Ray.
The Loser: Consumers.
Blu-Ray supporters are still crowing about their ‘big victory’, calling Blu-Ray “the consumer’s clear choice”. Sorry, but the consumers did not choose Blu-Ray, the movie studios and consumer electronics industry did. By siding with one format over another, and by enticing other studios and retailers to side likewise, they took away your choice as a consumer while the sales of high def disks were still in it’s infancy and before you were really able to make your voice heard as to your true preference for format. The studios decided a format that still had not produced a single player capable of all the features it had been promised to provide, that was more expensive to manufacture and that had much more expensive hardware was going to be “the consumer’s choice”.
HD DVD had a lot more going for it. Manufacturing HD DVD disks could be done on regular DVD authoring equipment with some modifications, making it cheaper and much more ready for mass production. HD DVD players came out on day one with a full set of mandatory features including Ethernet capability and built in secondary video and audio decoders and PiP, that meant they would be able to handle future disk features and not become obsolete in a year. HD DVD players were far less expensive and were much closer to the price points needed for mass adoption. The two things Blu-Ray had that HD DVD did not was better capacity and the capability for a higher bitrate, neither of which would matter for movies for a long time, if ever.
Despite all that, Blu-Ray is apparently “the consumer’s choice”. Ooookay. I hope those Blu-Ray fans enjoyed the specials and buy-one-get-one promotions on their disks, because without HD DVD to compete with we won’t see those again anytime soon… and the dropping of the prices of players will slow to a crawl. Yep, the consumers will be jumping for joy.
I have no problem with Blu-Ray as a format. All I want is a standard that delivers all the content I want at an affordable price. It’s picture and sound is equal to HD DVD, and the nice thing about the extra capacity is that they can cram extras and possibly more uncompressed sound formats on a single disk. The problem with Blu-Ray is that it is a lot farther away from mass adoption than HD DVD was, and it might take them too long to seriously challenge DVD before something else comes along and usurps their thunder… like high definition downloads via an Apple TV type device, or some other new format. First they have to actually produce a player that has all the features they’ve been promising. So far that has not happened (and please don’t tell me the PS3 is it… that is a GAME CONSOLE and any self respecting HT enthusiast wouldn’t be caught dead with one of those ugly monstrosities in their AV stack). Then they have to get the price of that player down below the $200 mark, and the price of their disks under $20. That is a long way from happening with Blu-Ray. Maybe too long. There are some experts that feel the internet will be providing our video entertainment as it does our music in the near future, and optical disks, like CDs, will see drastically falling sales.
Personally, I don’t see Blu-Ray going the way of Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio… two ultra-high fidelity audio formats that had a format war a few years ago and ended up finding out consumers didn’t want either, but were in fact a lot happier with LESS quality sound in the form of MP3’s and the portability and convenience of devices like the iPod. People like to listen to music in their car, when they workout and when they are at a party… they don’t sit down in the living room with popcorn and spend hours staring at their stereo with their family or friends listening to the latest albums. TV is a central event, not a background entertainment. Picture quality is more important, and far more noticeable, than the fidelity of music for most people. Nobody is going to replace enjoying their 60″ plasma HDTV with their 3 inch iPod touch screen for watching movies because they want convenience. The size of digital movie files, especially in HD, is far too big to allow for the kind of easy downloads that music enjoys today. It will take far longer for internet speeds and technology to reach convenient download speeds that it will for consumers to switch to a new disk format for delivering their video entertainment in HD. Blu-Ray will be replaced in 10 years or so by virtual, downloaded video. In the meantime there is room for a new HD format for physical media.
Now the problem is that there is still no good Blu-Ray player on the market. The closet thing is the Panasonic BD30, which still does not connect to the internet or decode DTS-MA HD internally and suffers from a bug with PCM sound through HDMI. Supposedly in the next month or two there will be full, “BD 2.0” players like the Panasonic BD50 available, but expect the price point to be north of $500… a long way from your average consumer buying one. In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying my HD DVD player and switch to renting disks rather than buying. When Blu-Ray finally gets around to producing a good, full featured player and a reasonable price, I’ll jump on board.
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