Upon the release of recent news on Warner Bros. shifting its HD home video support from both formats to only Blu-ray, many of the mainstream media outlets quickly jumped to the conclusion that the HD format war was over. The idea of the format war being over couldn't be further from the truth, although Sony's Blu-ray is without question picking up supporters. Conjecture from the recent Consumer Electronic Show suggests Sony is helping their cause with as much as $500,000,000 per studio willing to jump on to their sidelines, but that support and the figure have not been easy to confirm so far. The same rumors surfaced when Sony was battling for high-resolution audio supremacy with their SACD format vs. the also-doomed DVD-Audio format.
Sony knows the stakes are high, but so do the likes of Toshiba and Microsoft. The pace of this war is playing out quickly, as HD DVD had booming sales at the end of 2007. Prices for some HD DVD players dropped to as low as $99 per unit. Then Blu-ray stole the spotlight back by persuading Warner Bros. to support only their side.
Some industry experts say content rules supreme and Blu-ray clearly has the edge in terms of big-ticket titles. However, many prominent retailers say that without the players in the marketplace, selling the discs is nearly impossible. Sony benefits from their Playstation 3 system being the most stable of all high-def players, but most mainstream consumers don't play video games and don't look to an odd-sized game machine with clunky controllers and no RS-232 jack as a source for movie playback. In terms of set-top boxes, HD DVD has lower-priced models with that magic word DVD on them, which every consumer understands. Blu-ray, as a brand and as a concept, is still new to the soon-to-be-HDTV-converted marketplace. Moreover, people who already own set-top Blu-ray players suffer from the frequent need for firmware updates. Even the most recent players from Sony and Pioneer will not effectively play the latest blockbuster titles from Blu-ray-supportive studios, such as Disney, with its Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.
Can The HD DVD Camp Right The Ship?
With HD DVD on the ropes after the Blu-Friday Warners announcement, the HD DVD camp looks to regroup. It's likely too late for Microsoft to re-engineer their Xbox 360 system to run HD DVD internally, and with its overall success in the gaming world, who can blame them? What Microsoft can do is give people the incentive to add the company's HD DVD drive to the vast base of players on the market. Perhaps extending the promotion where gamers would get close to the equivalent of the price of the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive in free titles would convert a few million more people to the world of HD DVD.
Microsoft is the key to the future of HD DVD in terms of success with software and implementation. Amazingly, the actual specification for Blu-ray isn't yet fully implemented in the majority of current Blu-ray players, thus leaving early adopters increasingly angry at Blu-ray 2.0 discs for not playing effectively in older Blu-ray players. This leaves the door open for Microsoft to produce the best, most meaningful software and code they have ever written if they want to potentially rally HD DVD back on top of this fray. HDMI is still a nightmare for consumers, installers and equipment companies, yet there is no faster way to get a Hollywood studio's attention than to show them that you (with help from Intel, a long-standing partner of Microsoft) have the best, most reliable copy-protected connection. Right now, players of each format have HDMI connectivity issues, but it's the only way to get uncompressed audio and 1080p video from the player to the monitor and/or receiver. If Microsoft can whip up a strong solution here, consider it a major battle won.
Back to the world of conjecture, if studios can be bought for $500,000,000, then Microsoft's Steve Ballmer should be fueling the company Gulfstream 550 and heading down to Los Angeles to see the likes of Fox, and then swing a quick U-turn over the Southland to see the bigwigs at Disney in Burbank. $500,000,000 is a lot of coin to dangle in front of a company and will certainly get someone's attention at the studios. If that is the cost of doing business and how the game is being played, then it is time for Microsoft to step up, as nobody has the ability to pay more than the Seattle software superstar.
The Last Battle of a Two-Front War
The structure of the format war reminds me in some ways of World War II, in that the battle isn't as simple as England and the United States vs. the Axis powers in Europe and Japan. Even if Blu-ray runs away with the format war (think one or two more studios going to Blu-ray), they still have the fight of their lives left to wage. The last battle in the format war is with the consumer darling, the almighty traditional DVD.
For consumers not wowed by impressive 1080p video or are afraid of taking sides in a VHS vs. Beta-like format war, DVD offers millions of meaningful titles, quick load times and players that cost well under $100. Want to placate the hyper kids in the back of the minivan? Don't look to Blu-ray and HD DVD, as traditional DVD rules this multi-billion dollar world of mainstream consumers. Want to sell movies in bulk at grocery stores, drug stores and even Costco? Well then you have to knock off the mighty DVD in the eyes of the everyday consumer. There are still vast technical issues that frustrate and delay millions of mainstream consumers from making the move from standard-definition DVDs to HD discs of both formats. Wanna watch a movie while traveling the country? Traditional DVD rules that world, too, despite Apple's support of Blu-ray and Toshiba's spattering of HD DVD-drive laptops.
In the end, when the HD battle is over and the charred Earth is starting to cool, the final battle will start to rage and that is a battle to kill off the DVD. Don't think for a second that Microsoft and Toshiba don't know they have the format with DVD in their name, and that they don't know the value of that branding. They know what they have and are going to fight to the end to try to win. Right now, Sony and their teammates have them on the ropes, but even with a lead, both sides have their weaknesses.
I don't want to predict who is going to win the format war at this stage, as there are too many battles left to fight. However, I can tell you, no matter what you read in the mainstream press, this war is not quite over yet.
by: Jerry Del Colliano