Burning Questions: Format Wars Redux, Blu-ray Disc vs. HD-DVD

We've been down this road before. In fact, I can clearly see the ruts left behind by the wagon wheels that have already taken this path, long before Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD ever existed. (HD stands for both High Definition and High Density.) Format wars are nothing new; but this time, the stakes are sky-high on all sides--for Hollywood, for hardware manufacturers, and especially for consumers, who are facing a quandary akin to the Betamax-VHS battle.

Why should we care about this latest format war? Simply put, the outcome will determine the way we get high-definition entertainment content. Since Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD are disparate and incompatible optical disc formats, the outcome will also determine what we buy to replace our living-room DVD player.

The way things are going, though, later this year two competing types of player, based on two different formats, could replace the DVD player. If HD-DVD sticks to its stated timeline, we should be seeing the first HD-DVD players by this fall. Note I say should; external factors could conspire to throw off that ambitious timeline. The estimated ship time for the first Blu-ray products is a bit further out--end of this year, or beginning of next.

Much Ado About Something

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, backers of the two formats trotted out the presentations and the proverbial dog-and-pony shows, each trying to one-up the other with product and alliance announcements. In HD-DVD's corner is the DVD Forum, the industry association that created the DVD format, and Toshiba and NEC; the Blu-ray Disc Association includes almost every major consumer electronics company, except Toshiba and NEC, who are backing HD-DVD.

But slick prototypes and familiar rhetoric aside, most media attention focused on two big-ticket content announcements--and the fine print contained therein.

In a glossy presentation at a ritzy Bellagio nightclub, the HD-DVD camp announced support by three studios--Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. Producing over 50 films in HD-DVD, as Warner Bros. intends to across all of its units (including HBO Home Video and New Line Cinema) is no small commitment. Nonetheless, I noticed that while some of the nearly 100 titles announced were very high-profile (including Warner's The Matrix and Harry Potter series) and Universal's The Bourne Supremacy), others were less impressive (Universal's Van Helsing and Waterworld, Warner's Catwoman and Gothika). The movie industry certainly made a flourish with these announcements, but they lacked sufficient meat to convince me that HD-DVD is Hollywood's sole path of the future.

Even more notable was the lack of any announcement regarding New Line Cinema's crown jewels, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Had the company committed to releasing Lord of the Rings in HD-DVD, I might have felt this was more than just a toe in the water for the studios.

As it was, I found the announcements vague and noncommittal. After all, per the fine print, none of the Hollywood studios is pledging to release films in HD-DVD only. It's entirely plausible we'll see content in two disc formats--on similar-looking media. At least with Beta vs. VHS, you could easily tell which tape cartridge was which (big and bulky=VHS); imagine moseying up to the store shelf to choose between similarly designed, same-sized packages for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I can hear the internal dialogue now: "Is this movie in HD-DVD? Or Blu-ray? And which one do I need?"

Meanwhile, the Blu-ray Disc Association wasn't silent. Although no movies were announced, Disney reiterated its support for Blu-ray. And with the announcement of gaming giant Electronic Arts' commitment to Blu-Ray, the Association cemented that format's future as the disc of choice for console games. Factor in Sony's backing of Blu-ray and the company's announced plans to support Blu-ray in its future PlayStation gaming consoles--and suddenly Blu-ray looks like it has the gaming market niche sealed up. No matter which way Hollywood goes, Blu-ray will exist, in this scenario.

Microsoft has already thrown its weight behind HD-DVD for the next-generation Xbox. However, recent rumors on the Web suggest that Microsoft will support only standard DVD in the Xbox 2. If true, that would certainly tip the scales in Blu-ray's favor as the next-gen platform for gaming.

More Alike Than Not

I'll save a recitation of the detailed disc size, layer thickness, and dyes for another time. Physically, both Blu-ray and HD-DVD media are dye-based optical discs, similar in size to today's DVDs. Both formats pack more data on the disc by relying on a blue-laser diode instead of the red laser used in current DVD technology. The blue laser has a shorter wavelength, which allows it to read more data packed into a given space.

Although neither Blu-ray Discs nor HD-DVD media will work on existing DVD players, both formats incorporate laser designs that make them backward compatible, so devices based on them will play back current DVDs and audio CDs. And both formats will use the same video compression schemes: MPEG-2, H.264, and VC-1. This development evens the playing field with respect to the video codec, at least.

While both formats will continue to support existing audio formats, advanced audio codecs are still being nailed down, as is the copy-protection scheme.

So which format has the advantage? As its name implies, HD-DVD is more closely related to its predecessor--but only in that the disc's physical structure is virtually identical to that of current DVD media. Proponents of the HD-DVD format point to that trait as an asset that makes ramping up production more seamless than doing so with Blu-ray Discs.

By contrast, Blu-ray requires an entirely different manufacturing and replication process, one that will require some infrastructure investment up front for manufacturers. Surely this will make a difference--but only in the early days. I've yet to hear anything that makes me think HD-DVD holds an insurmountable advantage. The question is, how long will it take for the technologies needed to produce Blu-ray Discs to ramp up and get the manufacturing costs down? Because the transition to HD-DVD involves less up-front expense, that format has an early edge.

When it comes to capacity, though, the point advantage goes hands-down to Blu-ray. Never mind the various rewritable and recordable specs; read-only specs are the only ones that matter for prerecorded Hollywood content. A Blu-ray Disc holds a whopping 25GB on a single-layer disc and 50GB on a dual-layer disc. By contrast, HD-DVD holds only 15GB on a single-layer disc and 30GB on a dual-layer disc.

And here's a reality check, folks: A standard 135-minute movie, encoded at 12 megabits per second, will require about 12GB to 13GB of storage, just for the video of the film alone. Factor in up to 5GB more for a high-end, DVD-Audio-level soundtrack, plus space for additional audio tracks (to support the requisite Dolby Digital and DTS), multiple language tracks and extras, and suddenly those 30GB dual-layer HD-DVD discs sound like they're going have a tough time handling all that content.

Before Hollywood commits to a format, it needs to remember that this next content-delivery format choice is for the long haul. What works in the context of today's standards for "roomy" won't necessarily work three years from now. And no one has ever regretted having too much storage.

Survey Says...

So what's going to decide this race? If it's first to market, HD-DVD may cross the finish line first--if the Advanced Access Content System copy protection scheme is finalized by March. That technology is holding up the finalization of read-only disc specs for both HD-DVD media and Blu-ray Discs. HD-DVD proponents have selected AACS for digital rights management; backers of the Blu-ray format are still finalizing their copy protection plans, but consider AACS as a front runner.

If AACS is delayed--and several industry folks I've spoken with feel this is likely--Toshiba and NEC may have a difficult time making their aggressive launch schedule. According to an NEC engineer, the company will need a minimum of three months after AACS copy protection is completed and the HD-DVD-ROM specification is finalized in order to get a HD-DVD drive into production. Consumer electronics products, such as the HD-DVD players that Toshiba will be selling, typically require even more time to market, to account for design, manufacture, and testing.

Even if AACS doesn't arrive on schedule, HD-DVD may still have a few months' lead on Blu-ray. Some Blu-ray Disc products may ship by the end of the year, but sources say it's looking more realistic for the beginning of 2006. And both formats could be delayed if the finalization of AACS drags on far beyond March.

In the contest of names, I have to say that it's a draw. HD-DVD is a marketer's dream: The format is blessed with a name that needs no introduction, given the hype over high-definition broadcast technologies and the off-the-meter popularity of DVD. But Blu-ray has a sea-breeze-like coolness factor. Together with Sony's pledge of PlayStation support, Blu-ray has a niche already carved out--regardless of which camp, or camps, Hollywood chooses to back.

Regardless of which format wins, an even newer optical technology is already waiting in the wings, ready to douse cold water on the victory parade. Backers of the Holographic Versatile Disc announced this month that the format will support mammoth 200GB media when it launches in the fourth quarter of this year--posing a direct challenge to blue-laser-based storage formats like Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

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