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HD DVD vs. Blu-ray: A high-definition confusion

Posted: 10 Sep 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:HD DVD? Blu-ray? high-definition formats? format confusion?

The format battle among Hollywood studios and CE giants over control of the high-definition DVD market boils down to three words: "Confusion, confusion, confusion!"

That was the conclusion of panelists at the International Broadcast Conference (IBC), which opened last week in the Netherlands. Video-disk industry insiders shared a litany of complaints based on the HD DVD and Blue-ray format war. The bloodless war's main combatants are Toshiba, creator of HD DVD, which is supported by Paramount and Dreamworks, versus Sony, which has sold most of the other Hollywood studios on Blu-ray.

Wild card entry
The wild card in the dispute is Time Warner, inventor of the dual-format "Total HD" disk, reportedly due for a delayed launch in 2008, which will offer 25Gbytes of Blu-ray on one side and HD DVD on the other. This capacity represents only half the gigabytes demanded by most Blu-ray-affiliated content providers, a deficiency that prompted one panelist, Lesley Johnson, head of Production for 2Entertain in the United Kingdom, to note, "This just seems to me to be another confusion. It's two disks just stuck together."

Jim Bottoms, co-founder of Understanding & Solutions, provided the bottom line on the critical issue of befuddling the consumer. "The longer the confusion exists for mass market consumers, they will want one format," he said. "If the market does not have a one-format solution within 18 months, the consumer will start to turn away."

When that happens, Bottoms warned, "There's a real danger that all this investment will be wasted."

Not all the panelists agreed with that estimate. Laurent Villaume, president of QOL, France, predicted that the two-format struggle will last into 2011, whenaccording to his company's research40 percent of households in the United States will have some installed HD capacity, and the Blu-ray/HD DVD market split will probably be about 60/40. "It's impossible to think," Villaume said, "that one format will be dead within this timeframe."

For now, according to Bottoms, Blu-ray commands 58 percent of industry support within the still embryonic high-definition disk market, with HD DVD at 23 percent and Warner, supporting both formats, representing the other 19 percent.

Consumers want HD
One issue is settled, however. Although many consumers still can't define the difference between standard- and high-definition video, they finally want it. "Tomorrow," said Villaume, "high definition will be the rule." This trend has been accelerated by a proliferation of large-screen, flat-panel TV displays that tend to highlight the flaws in standard-definition video. HD game consoles, PCs and even camcorders, among other products, have joined the parade.

"More and more companies are cascading into this sector," said Bottoms. "If you want to sell content, it has to be produced in high-definition."

Although the panel agreed in HD's inevitability, they also agreed on the difficulty of producing HD disks at the breakneck speed expected by Hollywood studios, especially when the job must be duplicated in two incompatible formats. Johnson, who was responsible for creating the HD versions of the award-winning BBC series, "Planet Earth," summed up the two-pronged HD disk headache: "There's a lot to think about, a lot to navigate, a lot to get over."

Disk production expert Michael Zink, director of advanced technology for Technicolor USA, detailed the extraordinary challenges of producing, designing, authoring and double-formatting video content. "The studios want fast," he said. "But this is a very complicated manufacturing process."

PS3 saves Blu-ray
Among the weapons recently deployed in the format war was Sony's Playstation 3 game console, which has the capacity to play Blu-ray DVDs. Sony has touted a sales spike for Blu-ray disks since the release of Playstation 3, but panelist Jean-Luc Renaud, publisher of DVD and Beyond 2007 in the United Kingdom, was skeptical. He said gamers who bought Playstation 3 were initially "underwhelmed" with the selection of games available for the machine, so they switched to playing movies. But as Sony fills the games gap, he predicted, "the PS3s will go back to the kid's room" and consumer use of Playstations for movie-watching will drop off.

Another point of confusion for consumers is the fact that the cheapest HD DVD player is still about $300, with Blu-ray players starting at twice that amount. The panelists agreed that in the long run, price will be less of a problem than format confusion.

Renaud added one last element that combined both dilemmas, price and format. He said one solution that might accommodate both camps is the inevitable development of dual-format, HD-DVD/Blu-ray players. "It's more expensive," he said, "but it's another optiondepending on how the [format] war goes."

- David Benjamin
EE Times

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