Burning Questions: Latest HD-DVD-vs-Blu-ray Salvos

Those of us who follow the raging format war between backers of Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD have been quite busy keeping up with missives from both camps. It's also been entertaining to watch each group proclaim its technology's virtues and issue responses countering the other side's announcements.

The format battle has reached new, vociferous heights with these latest salvos. So much propaganda is being tossed around, it's easy to lose sight of statements that have substance and roots in reality. It all reminds me of a classic M*A*S*H episode in which a bomb lands in the midst of the mobile hospital compound and spews out propaganda fliers. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is how the dirty war of words is being played out in embarrassing excess on the Internet, across news and blog sites everywhere, thereby guaranteeing that the situation will come to the attention of--and anger--savvy consumers tired of corporate format battles.

Here are my two cents on some of the more notable recent announcements from backers of the aspiring successors to today's DVD formats.

Microsoft and Intel Join With HD-DVD

Intel and Microsoft officially threw their collective weight behind HD-DVD by joining the HD-DVD Promotion Group. Until now, HD-DVD's big cheerleaders have been Toshiba, NEC, and the DVD Forum (the overseers of the current, wildly successful DVD format) in the technology community; and Warner Brothers on the content provider side.

In a widely quoted joint statement about their decision to join the HD-DVD Promotion Group, Intel and Microsoft officials expressed doubt over Blu-ray's readiness for market. Among the points raised were whether Blu-ray backers will be able to manufacture a 50GB dual-layer disc for use by mass-market disc replicators, such as those that produce the slews of Hollywood DVDs sold today, and whether the Blu-ray format will support managed content--that is, copy-protected content transferred, or "ripped," from a disc to a server. The issue of managed content is important for the future of the home media server.

The Blu-ray Disc Association quickly lashed back with its own press release. This was soon followed by formal comments by Dell and Hewlett-Packard, the PC goliaths backing Blu-ray Disc. Anyone have a score card to keep track?

Although I find it interesting that both Intel and Microsoft feel that the HD-DVD format is more prepared than Blu-ray Disc for the challenges involved in the manufacture of products, when you boil these announcements down, they don't feel particularly weighty to me.

The Microsoft announcement, in particular, was only of interest from two perspectives. First, it seems to increase the likelihood that a future version of the Xbox (presumably the new 360) will have a high-definition-capable optical drive, although Microsoft has not formally announced this. Second, the announcement means that since Microsoft will support HD-DVD peripherals in its Windows Vista operating system, due by the end of 2006, adding an HD-DVD drive to a PC running Vista will be easier than adding a Blu-ray Disc drive. Still, that's not a big issue for system builders, who'll get the drivers from Blu-ray Disc peripheral suppliers; and in theory it shouldn't greatly affect aftermarket drive providers, who'll just supply a driver disc with the drive. Even more to the point: This announcement doesn't preclude Microsoft from eventually adding Blu-ray Disc support to Windows Vista.

Reading through the Microsoft and Intel statements on why they went with HD-DVD, I found an even more intriguing tidbit: vague references to Chinese hardware manufacturers signing on to HD-DVD. Why does this matter? Chinese manufacturers lead the way on pricing: If several, or even just one, of these companies have committed to producing HD-DVD players, we're likely to see the price of HD-DVD gear drop more rapidly than it might have otherwise. This could give HD-DVD a price edge in the market vis-à-vis Blu-ray.

Paramount: Both Sides of the Fence

Paramount Pictures' announcement that it will release its films on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc media has more substance and potential for impact than did the Microsoft and Intel statement.

First, some history: At the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show back in January, Paramount was among the studios at the splashy HD-DVD display gushing about their support for the format. At the time, the detail that often got lost in all the glitz was that none of those agreements was exclusive--nor, for that matter, was any of the announced studio support for Blu-ray Disc.

Paramount's decision to back both formats marks a sea change: It's the first studio to formally state that it will cross format lines. I'm sure Paramount won't be the last studio to do so--and if both formats go to market, I pity us, the consumers who'll have to distinguish between similar-looking discs. At least Beta and VHS were different in size. I'll even add a bit of empathy for the retailers who'll have to field the angry returns when folks get home with the wrong-format version of Mission: Impossible or Star Trek VI: The Final Frontier.

In hedging its bets and planning to offer high-definition movies in both formats, Paramount has done for software what Samsung has already done for hardware. Earlier this summer, a Samsung exec made remarks indicating that the company intended to produce a dual-format device if both formats go to market. Much was made of these remarks, which is surprising considering how little substance accompanied them: There was no word on a timeline for such a device, or on what it might cost.

The First Hardware Unveiled

But other companies are making more detailed announcements. At the recently concluded CEATAC Japan 2005, Toshiba finally formally announced its HD-DVD launch plans and showed a prototype of its first hardware player, dubbed the HD-XA1 for now. The company released few details on the slick-looking player. What was clear was that it will be available only in Japan at first; that it will ship there before the end of the year; and that it will likely cost close to the equivalent of $1000. The player will handle the 30GB dual-layer disc, a format endorsed by Toshiba early this summer; the format has been proposed to the DVD Forum but has not yet been incorporated into the official HD-DVD spec.

I've also heard from two different Toshiba representatives that the first HD-DVD players will be released here in the U.S. in early 2006. One of the HD-DVD players Toshiba announced is a skinny (0.5 inch) portable notebook HD-DVD drive, which will ship later this year in Japan and early next year stateside. The drive--like the first HD-DVD PC drive already announced by NEC--will read (but not write to) HD-DVD media, as well as read and write DVDs and CDs.

The Blu-ray offerings at CEATAC included a prototype Panasonic laptop with a DVD/Blu-ray Disc recorder (and player, naturally), as well as a Blu-ray recorder-equipped Sony VAIO-R desktop system.

As products get closer to coming to a store near you, the conflict between the camps is heating up. The optimist in me still holds out some faint hope that maybe, just maybe, a compromise will be reached. The realist plans to sit back and watch the fireworks--which are sure to be quite spectacular at, and in the run-up to, the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show this coming January.

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