Picture This: HD DVD is Dead, Long Live HD
Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer
Blu-ray officially takes the title in the HD-format wars.
It is official. With Toshiba's mid-February announcement that it will no longer continue to develop or market its HD DVD format, the prolonged format war to determine the high-definition successor for DVD is over. Blu-ray Disc will be the optical-media format for the high-definition future.
Toshiba is the primary developer and patent holder for HD DVD, and over the last year, it had been aggressively trying to leverage its first-to-market position by cutting player costs and giving away free movies with any purchase. However, the magnitude of support behind the competing Blu-ray format — from both electronics companies led by Sony, Matsushita (Panasonic), Pioneer Electronics, and Philips and motion-picture studios led by Sony Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, MGM, 20th Century Fox, and others — ultimately tipped the balance.
In the end, Toshiba's final announcement really wasn't all that shocking, aside from the very deep trenches each side had dug over the last several years and the millions of dollars each had invested. Once Warner Bros. announced right before CES in early January that it would cease to release titles on HD DVD and would deliver future titles exclusively on Blu-ray, the end result of the format war was fairly clear.
The Warner Bros. announcement was particularly damaging to HD DVD because Warner had, until then, overtly tried to support both formats — even going so far as to propose the noble, if fatally flawed, dual-sided, dual-format Total HD disc in early 2007. What's more, Warner Bros.' announcement left HD DVD with the support of few major studios and a clear loss of any market momentum, with retailers such as Wal-Mart jumping ship.
Blu-ray proponents will certainly argue that technical superiority won the war. After all, Blu-ray does have a 67-percent higher capacity of 25GB for a single-layer disc and 50GB for a dual-layer disc and a higher maximum throughput of 40Mbps. Yet both formats ultimately supported the same video encoding and, practically speaking, the same image quality. And both formats supported potential interactivity that goes well beyond the capabilities of DVD. Straight statistics were not the deciding factor, or else this format war never would have lasted.
Was it HD DVD's use of a Microsoft-based interactivity format, as opposed to Blu-ray's more open BD-J Java format, that led potential partners away? Or was Sony's PlayStation 3 with Blu-ray built in the wild card that trumped all? Or was it Sony Pictures throwing its Hollywood weight around? Ultimately, there is probably no single answer — nor is one necessary anymore. The entire HD DVD vs. Blu-ray debate was tiresome, and no side really deserved to win. The fact that it is Blu-ray rather than HD DVD is ultimately less relevant to both the consumer-electronics and professional-AV industries than the simple fact that there is now a definitive path to move forward.
TIME TO DELIVER
If you've been sitting on the sidelines in the HD-disc format war, that's probably been smart. However, the road ahead is clear, and it's time to understand what this new format has to offer. Clearly, high-definition video has reached the public awareness, and the increasing volume of HD-capable households means that consumers are seeing more HD content, and thus, they will expect more HD content. That will make standard-definition content, by comparison, look dated whether it's at home, in business settings, or in commercial and public signage settings.
Blu-ray Disc has high enough capacity and bandwidth to deliver a full-length motion picture at a very high quality. However, Blu-ray is more than just a high-definition version of DVD. It has vastly more interactive capabilities than DVD, and that could entice business and commercial users to leverage optical media in store kiosks, entertainment venues, and sports venues — and as collateral material for marketing purposes.
With Blu-ray's interactivity, viewers can engage a variety of options with or without disrupting the primary content; that is, special features can be incorporated directly into the viewing of the main content feature. A viewer might, with the appearance of a prompt or semi-transparent menu, call up information about a character, place, actor, etc., without pausing the movie. The extra information might appear like a cable news ticker, a semi-transparent block over a corner of the screen, around a video-in-a-window, side by side with the main content in a splitscreen, or any number of other possibilities.
Imagine clicking on an actor's shirt and linking to purchase information. Better still, imagine the Blu-ray player connecting to the Internet and going directly to a site where the viewer can place an order or book a plane ticket to a movie's filming location. Now imagine a kiosk at a mall, amusement park, sports arena, or other public space — all supported by high-definition video content with the same interactive possibilities. It's a potentially compelling new tool.
DVD authoring always had the possibility of Internet access, but only DVD-ROM-equipped computers could leverage it. Consumer Blu-ray players, on the other hand, will have that physical connection and access to a network or the broader Internet as a standard feature, thus allowing content developers to augment information on the disc with updates, online commerce, searches, maps, and more.
Blu-ray's authoring environment, known as BD-J, is Java-based and draws on many of the same tools and syntax as web-development tools. Does that mean it's emulating the Web? Do we really need Blu-ray at all if video and interactivity can happen online? After the dragged-out format war that saw 1 million people purchase what has turned out to be the losing format, it would be fitting justice to think that optical media has missed its time altogether. And that may be the case for many applications.
However, optical media still offers a high storage capacity for inexpensive distribution of high-quality, high-definition video in a world where bandwidth still has an opportunity cost. What's more, fixed-purpose consumer electronics devices such as Blu-ray players can offer a closed, robust environment that's less susceptible to tampering, viruses, and other maleficence than a general-purpose computer in a kiosk. Add the advanced interactive capabilities of the BD-J, as well as the focused Internet-access possibilities, and minimally, Blu-ray is a tool that commercial (and clearly residential) installers need to be aware of at least.
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