Beyond the Office [Burning Questions: The Next-Generation Disc - 07/26/2005]

Discussion in 'DVD Video' started by Ablang, Aug 3, 2005.

  1. Ablang

    Ablang Guest

    July 26th, 2005

    Burning Questions: The Next-Generation Disc

    Sr. Assoc. Ed. Melissa J. Perenson

    No one wants to back the losing team. And today's consumers are savvy
    enough to know they don't want to be caught anywhere near the quagmire
    that is the turf war between competing next-generation optical disc
    formats Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD. One of these formats will replace the
    current DVD standard for delivery of packaged entertainment, including
    video and games.

    For more on the battle between Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD, see my
    February column:
    http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,119665,tk,box,00.asp

    Consumers want to go with the winning standard, but they also want
    other things from the successor to DVD. The Blu-ray Disc Association
    is touting a new study it commissioned to gauge consumers' attitudes
    about the next-generation disc format, and the results shed light on
    aspects of consumer thinking about the future consumption of
    entertainment. The Blu-ray Disc Association--which includes the likes
    of Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, and
    Sony--released the results of the independent study in early July.

    The State of the War

    A bit of background for those who don't follow these things: Blu-ray
    Disc and HD-DVD (backed by NEC and Toshiba) are both formats for
    high-capacity optical discs designed to play back video content as
    well as to store games and data. The competing formats are not
    compatible with one another; if you buy one type of disc, you won't be
    able to play it in the other type of player.

    Sidestepping the technical minutiae of the two formats, the most
    obvious difference from a user standpoint lies in their capacity:
    Blu-ray Disc supports 25GB on a single-layer disc and 50GB on a
    double-layer disc, while HD-DVD supports 15GB on a single-layer disc
    and 30GB on a double-layer disc. Hollywood movie studios have publicly
    split on support for the two formats: 20th Century Fox, ESPN, MGM,
    Miramax, Sony Pictures, Touchstone, and Walt Disney Company are behind
    Blu-ray; and HBO and New Line Cinema, Paramount Pictures, Universal
    Studios, and Warner Brothers are behind HD-DVD. Further complicating
    the matter: None of these studios has an exclusive agreement with the
    camp they've backed.

    Earlier this year the two sides were rumored to be in "peace talks";
    however, those talks apparently broke down this spring, and the two
    camps are proceeding apace towards bringing their respective products
    to market. Still, the optimistic among us have reason to hold onto a
    sliver of hope: Warring parties agreed on today's DVD format at the
    last minute, too. Everyone--Hollywood studios, hardware makers, and
    the consumers whose patronage will keep both in business--knows that a
    format war will only constrain the potential growth of the high-def
    movie distribution market. But that doesn't mean I'd bet the condo on
    an amicable resolution this time.

    The latest word is that we'll still see products this year--although
    not necessarily as early as some of the original projections that the
    HD-DVD camp tossed out last January at the Consumer Electronics Show
    in Las Vegas. Holding up progress for both formats is the finalization
    of Advanced Access Content System copy protection controls, a spec
    that was originally expected in March 2005 and has yet to be finalized
    as of this writing.

    It's fine for everyone involved to take their time to get the
    technology nailed down and do it right before they launch products,
    but consider this: With neither camp having locked in its format for
    commercially pressed video discs (the discs on which Hollywood content
    will be distributed for the foreseeable future), the likelihood of
    seeing products by September or October as HD-DVD posited at CES, or
    even by year's end as some Blu-ray proponents originally projected, is
    getting increasingly dim. I wouldn't be surprised to see some products
    surface in limited quantities. But given what I'm hearing now, we're
    unlikely to find consumer disc players or recorders on shelves for
    this holiday shopping season.

    Compatibility Is King

    Now, on to the aforementioned Blu-ray Disc Association study. It was
    conducted in May 2005 by Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates, which
    quizzed 1202 consumers aged 18 to 64 years on their views and
    perceptions about the successor to today's DVD format. Of the survey
    sample, nearly 40 percent (392 respondents) already own an HDTV setup.

    Many of the study's findings seem obvious, but they nonetheless back
    up some common-sense assumptions about how people use and consume
    media.

    Of the top seven qualities that survey respondents said they want in
    next-generation media and players, four focused on the twin desires of
    backward- and cross-compatibility: the ability to play today's DVDs on
    next-generation players and to use next-generation discs in other
    devices, such as gaming consoles. The strong support for compatibility
    every which way you can have it reflects buying and usage trends that
    I hear echoed by friends and colleagues alike.

    First, no one wants to ditch their current DVD collections. In fact,
    the most desired quality in the mystery player of the future was that
    it should maintain backward compatibility with existing DVD content: A
    whopping 70 percent of respondents back this one.

    Second, not everyone wants to invest in new HDTVs to replace their
    existing TV setups. I don't know about you, but while I was growing
    up, we never got rid of a TV until it died--and even then, Dad
    sometimes brought it to life again, after which it found its way to
    some other room such as the basement, so it was near the treadmill and
    laundry room. Most U.S. homes have two or more TVs, and not all of
    them will be replaced by swanky, wide-screen high-def models.

    I suspect that most people are focusing on upgrading the common areas
    first, such as the living room or den, with other rooms of the house
    to follow. And I expect a similar pattern for upgrading the playback
    equipment attached to those secondary and tertiary TVs: Those older
    TVs might be accompanied by a $40 no-name DVD player, but they won't
    be the first priority for an expensive HD-capable playback box.

    These impressions gel with the study's responses. Sixty percent of
    respondents want the next-generation disc to be able to contain both
    wide-screen and full-screen versions of a movie. And 57 percent want a
    dual-sided disc that could play a movie both in current DVD players at
    standard definition, and in the next-generation mystery player at high
    definition.

    Play It Anywhere

    The fact that consumers were interested in using the same disc in
    different ways and devices surprised the Blu-ray Disc folks who
    commissioned this study. "The idea of a hybrid disc that works in both
    an existing DVD player and a Blu-ray Disc player was very strong, and
    underscores how convergence bubbled up to the top [of consumers'
    concerns]," notes Marty Gordon, vice president of Philips Electronics
    and spokesperson for the Blu-ray Disc Association. "The ability to
    play a disc [anywhere] was very important," he says.

    Incidentally, the Blu-ray Disc spec already has a provision for two
    variations of a dual-sided disc that combines existing formats with
    the Blu-ray format, similar to what today's Dual-Disc format does for
    CD-Audio and DVD-Video. The first combo, for Blu-ray/DVD Hybrid discs,
    enables a disc with one side that acts as a 25GB BD-ROM (like a
    DVD-ROM, only of the Blu-ray variety) and the other that acts as a
    8.5GB dual-layer DVD-ROM. The second combo calls for a Blu-ray/CD
    Hybrid disc, with one side featuring a single-layer 25GB BD-ROM and
    the other a 700MB CD-ROM, either as data or CD-Audio.

    Finally, no one wants to keep a score card to remember which player
    they can pop a disc into; you want the disc to play in anything,
    whether it's your gaming console, PC, or set-top recorder. Once again,
    the study results bear this out: 62 percent of respondents indicate
    they'd prefer a disc that be played in any of those three devices.
    That makes sense, considering that the popularity of DVD-ROM drives on
    computers was jumpstarted by the proliferation of DVD-Video, not DVD
    data, discs. For those of you keeping score at home, Sony has
    announced it will support Blu-ray Disc in the PlayStation 3;
    Microsoft, meanwhile, has not announced HD-DVD support for its Xbox
    360, but rumors are still swirling that a future version of the Xbox
    might.

    High-Stakes Game

    Given this new level of convergence, it's possible that either Blu-ray
    Disc or HD-DVD will define tangible (meaning not downloaded) home
    entertainment in the next decade. As to which one will come out on
    top, I won't hazard a guess just yet.

    The Blu-ray Disc Association's Gordon was unable to confirm, deny, or
    otherwise comment on the reported negotiations between the powerhouse
    companies in the Blu-ray and HD-DVD camps earlier this year. "There
    was a lot of rumor and speculation," he says. "You can't always
    believe what you read."

    The prospect of unifying the formats, he says, is "very difficult, but
    we still have hope." The difficulty, he adds, is that "we're talking
    about two different physical formats, and two different philosophies.
    The HD-DVD philosophy has been [concerned with] the industry: cheaper
    discs, easier replication. From the beginning, the Blu-ray philosophy
    has been focused on the consumer benefits."

    I found that an interesting, and valid, observation on Gordon's part:
    After all, HD-DVD's biggest benefits over Blu-ray involve the cost of
    disc production. The HD-DVD format has its evolutionary origins in the
    existing DVD format, which translates to lower costs for media
    production and disc replication. The cynical among us--myself
    included--can assume those lower costs will probably never be
    reflected in the prices we see at the checkout counter at Best Buy or
    Costco; they'll just mean a higher profit margin to studios.

    By contrast, Blu-ray Disc's higher capacity and roadmap for increased
    capacity (up to 100GB on a single disc has been achieved in laboratory
    conditions), makes me think that the backers of this format are
    looking out for my long-term interests as a consumer. After all, if
    I'm going to buy my umpteenth version of the Star Wars trilogy, I'll
    want the highest-quality video I can get on the next-generation disc.
    Furthermore, I already have plenty of content to store on those
    discs--so as far as I'm concerned, the more capacity, the better.

    As optimistic as I'd like to be about a satisfactory resolution to the
    format wars, I'm fairly certain that won't happen. Still, I'm going to
    keep hoping against hope that the two camps can resolve their
    differences--in spite of how unlikely that might seem, given the fact
    that to do so means, for all intents and purposes, that one camp will
    likely have to write off substantial R&D costs and lose out on
    potential royalties.

    The industry is not blind to the impending nightmare if both formats
    go to market. As Gordon notes, "No one wants a format war. The thought
    of one fills everyone--consumers and industry alike--with angst."

    Perhaps the most telling stat in the whole study is the one that
    indicates consumers' indecision as to which format they'd choose if
    Hollywood studios remain split. Technology and company backing aside,
    when consumers were asked which disc they'd choose, if the only
    consideration is that "two similar, but non-compatible formats of
    next-generation discs were supported by different entertainment
    companies," a whopping 67 percent say they're undecided. That doesn't
    bode well for future sales of anybody's players or media.

    To keep up with the latest developments, visit PC World's Info Center
    for DVD Burners & Recorders:
    http://www.pcworld.com/resource/infocenter/0,ctrid,11,ic,DVDDrivesandRecorders,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/columnist/0,colid,3,tk,bo,00.asp


    ===
    "To buy an island is the same as courting a woman. You can never explain exactly why you love her. It's chemistry--something you cannot define--a feeling that you can stay forever."
    -- Farhad Vladi, Islands (mag) Jul/Aug 2005
    Ablang, Aug 3, 2005
    #1
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