HD format war: over?

Matthew JC. Powell
8 January, 2008
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On the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Warner Brothers — the last major film studio supporting both Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD — decided to hop off the fence and put its support solely behind Blu-ray Disc. The news shocked the industry, most especially those at Toshiba, which has bet the proverbial farm on HD-DVD taking over as the successor to DVD in the future of home entertainment. Many have interpreted the news as the final nail in the coffin of HD-DVD, which is now only supported by Universal and Paramount studios (and Paramount is known to be committed only for the next 18 months).

So is this the end of the format war? Has Blu-ray won? And, if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Before declaring the war over, remember that HD-DVD still has backers like Intel and Microsoft in its corner, and those are some deep pockets. Home entertainment is one arena for the format war, but computers are the other. As those two arenas move closer together, a victory in the computer sphere could still offer a glimmer of hope to HD-DVD.

Sony’s masterstroke in the promotion of Blu-ray Disc was the inclusion of a BD player in the Playstation 3 games console. it made the console a lot more expensive than its competitors and no doubt slowed its sales considerably, but such is the strength of the Playstation brand that it still sold sufficient units to give Blu-ray significantly greater market penetration than HD-DVD. Microsoft could have included HD-DVD capabilities in its XBox 360, but chose to keep costs down and maximise sales instead — it wants to win the battle against Playstation first and foremost. (Note that the last-generation Playstation 2 console still considerably outsells either XBox 360 or Playstation 3.)

At any rate, with all those Blu-ray players having been foisted on PS3 owners whether they wanted them or not, the impetus was there to go and buy some Blu-ray titles, just to see whether there’s a significant difference. That means that movies on BD have outsold movies on HD-DVD by something like 3:1 in some markets. Those are the kind of numbers that Warner Brothers will have been looking at after the holiday peak retail period. So will Universal and Paramount.

So if not entirely out for the count, HD-DVD has suffered a significant body blow with the defection of Warners. The momentum now is behind Blu-ray, and the fight is for HD-DVD and its backers to get back into the ring.

The problem for both formats is, of course, the fact that there are two formats. People don’t want to commit themselves to either HD-DVD or BD if they don’t know that the content they want will be available in the format they choose. Warners’ decision means that The West Wing will come out on Blu-ray, but what if I want Paramount’s Star Trek, which is only on HD-DVD? Which player do I buy? Simple answer: I don’t buy either. That decision is possible for the simple reason that, for all the promise that high-definition offers, DVD still looks pretty darn good. Even if you’ve bought a big-screen LCD or plasma with HD capabilities, your old DVDs will look better on that than they did on your old CRT. So you can afford to wait until the dust settles.

That means that the actual numbers for both BD and HD-DVD sales are not actually all that impressive. The big incentive for all concerned is to get this thing decided and start moving some product.

The problem for you and me is that Blu-ray is the less consumer-friendly of the two formats. One of the reasons for its greater support from studios is its stronger Region Code system, which allows the studios to decide when (and indeed if) certain content such as movies and TV shows is released in particular markets. DVD’s Region Code system was designed to do the same thing, but was also highly illogical and badly implemented. The vast majority of DVD users managed to bypass the RC system and buy the content they wanted from wherever they wanted — something you would think would be a consumer’s right.

One of the promises of HD-DVD was that it would forego Region Coding once and for all. Copy protection is one thing, and it’s a valid and right thing, but restricting the ability of customers to buy your product legitimately didn’t work for DVD except to antagonise people. So Toshiba and the HD-DVD camp elected to drop the idea. That would have been a good thing for you and me, because it would have meant we could buy HD-DVD content and take it wherever in the world we happened to be going, and be confident it would work in the player we found once we got there. With Blu-ray’s enhanced, stronger and more restrictive Region Code system, that is not the case.

The intricacies of the tech specs on either system notwithstanding, the blow for consumer freedom and choice that HD-DVD is trying to strike is a reason to support that format — ironically, it’s also a major reason why the studios aren’t backing it.

So ultimately, what does Warners’ decision mean to you? Not a whole lot. Your region-free DVD player still works, you can still get lots of movies for it, and it looks great on your 110cm plasma (quite honestly, you need a VERY big screen before the differences between HD and SD become really obvious). So if you were waiting for the dust to settle on the HD format war, your wait may be nearly over. Now you just have to wait until someone breaks the Region Code system on Blu-ray, and it will be time to buy.

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