As both the Blu-ray and HD-DVD camps travelling full steam ahead to get their disc format to market, optimism for a single successor to the DVD format is diminishing.
No one wants to back the losing team. And today's consumers are savvy enough to know they don't want to be caught anywhere near the quagmire that is the turf war between competing next-generation optical disc formats Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD. One of these formats will replace the current DVD standard for delivery of packaged entertainment, including video and games.
Consumers want to go with the winning standard, but they also want other things from the successor to DVD. The Blu-ray Disc Association is touting a new study it commissioned to gauge consumers' attitudes about the next-generation disc format, and the results shed light on aspects of consumer thinking about the future consumption of entertainment. The Blu-ray Disc Association – which includes the likes of Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, and Sony – released the results of the independent study in early July.
The state of the battleground
A bit of background for those who don't follow these things: Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD (backed by NEC and Toshiba) are both formats for high-capacity optical discs designed to play back video content as well as to store games and data. The competing formats are not compatible with one another, so if you buy one type of disc, you won't be able to play it in the other type of player.
Sidestepping the technical minutiae of the two formats, the most obvious difference from a user standpoint lies in their capacity – Blu-ray Disc supports 25GB on a single-sided disc and 50GB on a double-sided disc, while HD-DVD supports 15GB on a single-sided disc and 30GB on a double-sided disc.
Hollywood movie studios have publicly split on support for the two formats: 20th Century Fox, ESPN, MGM, Miramax, Sony Pictures, Touchstone, and the Walt Disney Company are behind Blu-ray, while HBO and New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, and Warner Brothers are behind HD-DVD. The fact that none of these studios has an exclusive agreement with the camp they've backed complicated the matter further.
Earlier this year, the two sides were rumoured to be in "peace talks". However, those talks apparently broke down in the spring, and the two camps are proceeding apace towards bringing their respective products to market. Still, optimists hold onto a sliver of hope – warring parties agreed on today's DVD format at the last minute, too.
Everyone – Hollywood studios, hardware makers, and the consumers whose patronage will keep both in business – knows that a format war will only constrain the potential growth of the high-def movie distribution market. But that doesn't mean the resolution will be amicable.
The latest word is that we'll still see products this year – although not necessarily as early as some of the original projections that the HD-DVD camp tossed out last January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Holding up progress for both formats is the finalization of Advanced Access Content System copy protection controls, a spec that was originally expected in March 2005 and has yet to be finalized.
So, it’s unlikely we’ll see new formats as soon as the industry promised. Compulsive early-adopters may have to think of something else to put on their Christmas lists.
Compatibility is king
The Blu-ray Disc Association study was conducted in May 2005 by Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates, which quizzed 1,202 US consumers aged 18-64 on their views and perceptions about the successor to today's DVD format. Of the survey sample, nearly 40 per cent (392 respondents) already own an HDTV setup.
Many of the study's findings seem obvious, but they nonetheless back up some common-sense assumptions about how people use and consume media.
Of the top seven qualities that survey respondents said they want in next-generation media and players, four focused on the twin desires of backward- and cross-compatibility: the ability to play today's DVDs on next-generation players and to use next-generation discs in other devices, such as gaming consoles.
No one wants to ditch their current DVD collections. In fact, the most desired quality in the mystery player of the future was that it should maintain backward compatibility with existing DVD content: A whopping 70 per cent of respondents back this one.
Second, not everyone wants to invest in new HDTVs to replace their existing TV setups. Most US homes have two or more TVs, and swanky, widescreen high-def models will not replace them all.
Play it anywhere
The fact that consumers were interested in using the same disc in different ways and devices surprised the Blu-ray Disc folks who commissioned this study. "The idea of a hybrid disc that works in both an existing DVD player and a Blu-ray Disc player was very strong, and underscores how convergence bubbled up to the top [of consumers' concerns]," notes Marty Gordon, vice president of Philips Electronics and spokesperson for the Blu-ray Disc Association. "The ability to play a disc [anywhere] was very important," he says.
Incidentally, the Blu-ray Disc spec already has a provision for two variations of a dual-sided disc that combines existing formats with the Blu-ray format, similar to what today's Dual-Disc format does for CD-Audio and DVD-Video. The first combo, for Blu-ray/DVD Hybrid discs, enables a disc with one side that acts as a 25GB BD-ROM (like a DVD-ROM, only of the Blu-ray variety) and the other that acts as a 8.5GB dual-layer DVD-ROM.
The second combo calls for a Blu-ray/CD Hybrid disc, with one side featuring a single-layer 25GB BD-ROM and the other a 700MB CD-ROM, either as data or CD-Audio.
Given this new level of convergence, it's possible that either Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD will define tangible (meaning not downloaded) home entertainment in the next decade. As to which one will come out on top, it’s anyone’s guess at this stage.
The Blu-ray Disc Association's Gordon was unable to confirm, deny, or otherwise comment on the reported negotiations between the powerhouse companies in the Blu-ray and HD-DVD camps earlier this year. "There was a lot of rumour and speculation," he says. "You can't always believe what you read."
The prospect of unifying the formats, he says, is "very difficult, but we still have hope." The difficulty, he adds, is that "we're talking about two different physical formats, and two different philosophies. The HD-DVD philosophy has been [concerned with] the industry: cheaper discs, easier replication. From the beginning, the Blu-ray philosophy has been focused on the consumer benefits."
I found that an interesting, and valid, observation on Gordon's part: After all, HD-DVD's biggest benefits over Blu-ray involve the cost of disc production. The HD-DVD format has its evolutionary origins in the existing DVD format, which translates to lower costs for media production and disc replication. Cynics assume those lower costs will probably never be reflected in the prices we see at the shops – they'll just mean a higher profit margin to studios.
By contrast, Blu-ray Disc's higher capacity and roadmap for increased capacity (up to 100GB on a single disc has been achieved in laboratory conditions), indicates that the backers of this format are looking out for the consumer a little more.. After all, if you’re going to buy your umpteenth version of the Star Wars trilogy, I'll want the highest-quality video I can get on the next-generation disc. Furthermore, I already have plenty of content to store on those discs – so as far as I'm concerned, the more capacity, the better.
The industry is not blind to the impending nightmare if both formats go to market. As Gordon notes, "No one wants a format war. The thought of one fills everyone – consumers and industry alike – with angst."