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Beyond the Office [Burning Questions: HD-DVD-vs-Blu-ray Salvos - 10/25/2005]

 
 
Ablang
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      07-16-2006
October 25th, 2005

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

Sr. Assoc. Ed. Melissa J. Perenson

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:
http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/...,tk,box,00.asp

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--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:
http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/...,tk,box,00.asp

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:
http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/...,tk,box,00.asp

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.

Read "Competing HD Formats Square Off" for our report on the show:
http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/...,tk,box,00.asp

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.

Anxious to keep up on the latest developments? Bookmark our Info
Center on DVD Burners and Recorders:
http://www.pcworld.com/resource/info...,tk,box,00.asp

Have a question or comment? Write to Melissa Perenson:
burningquestions at pcworld.com

Read Melissa J. Perenson's regularly published "Burning Questions"
columns:
http://www.pcworld.com/resource/colu...3,tk,bo,00.asp

==
"You have enemies? Good! That means you've stood up for something in your life."
-- Winston Churchill
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