Toshiba, NEC Promise HD-DVD in 2005

TOKYO -- The High Definition/High Density DVD next-generation optical disc format got a boost when Toshiba and NEC announced this week they will launch compatible products next year, with a major Japanese content producer also backing the format.

Toshiba and NEC announced their plans to launch HD-DVD hardware during 2005 at the opening of a three-day event here promoting the standard to Japan's entertainment industry. Toshiba is developing a home player and possibly a recorder, while NEC says it is working on a drive for use with computers.

At the same event, Pony Canyon, Japan's largest distributor of DVDs, promised to release content in the format, naming the first eight discs it plans to produce.

Format Battle

The promotional effort aims to push HD-DVD toward victory in what has been until now a one-sided race to become the format of choice for high-definition video content.

To date, demonstrations of HD-DVD have been largely confined to prototype models on show at technical seminars and some events. In contrast, recorders based on the competing Blu-ray Disc are already on the market. Sony shipped the first in 2003, and Matsushita Electric Industrial (better known as Panasonic) is releasing the second on sale in Japan this weekend.

The HD-DVD group, which is mainly led by Toshiba and NEC, is using the technological differences between the two formats as the basis for its argument that HD-DVD makes more sense than Blu-ray Disc and hopes the entertainment industry, both in Japan and elsewhere, is listening.

The industry is a tough crowd to please, says Toshio Yajima, a senior executive advisor to Microsoft's Japan unit. "They like to say no."

But both sides in the format battle know that without the support of movie studios and entertainment companies their formats could be dead in the water.

Prices, Features

Toshiba and NEC are appealing to the collective wallets of the industry.

Because HD-DVD discs are almost physically identical to current DVD discs, the same production lines can be used to produce both discs, saving the expense of building new factories, says Masato Ootsuka, senior manager of the engineering development department at optical disc maker Memory-Tech.

A pilot line at the company's factory in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, can switch between DVD and HD-DVD in five minutes and producing a dual-layer 30GB HD-DVD disc takes 3.5 seconds, compared to 3 seconds for a DVD, Ootsuka says.

Hardware is also be cheaper to make because its similarity to DVD means it is less complicated, the companies say.

Toshiba and NEC won't comment on the likely price of their first products. But Hisashi Yamada, a Toshiba chief fellow of technology and chair of the DVD Forum, said at a Los Angeles event earlier this year that he expects the first players to cost around $910. Panasonic's Blu-ray Disc recorder due on sale this week will cost around $2700.

The group is also pushing the message that, while HD-DVD offers a lower data storage capacity than Blu-ray Disc, HD-DVD can store more high-definition programming. That's because it uses the MPEG4.AVC, which is based on the H.264 codec; and the VC9 codec, which is based on Microsoft's Windows Media 9 codec.

HD-DVD's codecs are more efficient than the MPEG2 system used in Blu-ray Disc can reduce the file size by two thirds, says Microsoft's Yajima. That means one 15GB disc can hold 180 minutes of high-definition video. A 29GB Blu-ray Disc can hold around 132 minutes of video, which is not long enough for around 5 percent of movies, he says.

Work in Progress

One stumbling block to widespread support is the lack of a strong copy-protection and digital rights management system. However, this work is also under way and details are expected to be published soon, Yajima says.

The problem of illegal copying was highlighted in a recent report by the Motion Picture Association of America that says an average of 24 percent of Internet users in eight major countries have downloaded a movie. The MPAA estimates losses to the movie industry from such piracy run into billions of dollars.

With the promotional event in Tokyo this week and Panasonic's imminent launch of its Blu-ray Disc player, it appears the long-anticipated battle between the two sides is now beginning.

The Blu-ray Disc camp is targeting recording of high-definition programs, but this could hamper it in markets where high-definition programming has yet to take off. The HD-DVD team is seeking victory through the backing of entertainment companies for prerecorded content and hoping users are more interested in watching such content than time-shifting television.

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