No Winners

October 19, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Of the many things that have become clear as Sony and Toshiba fire the opening salvos in what is sure to be a long, ugly format war, one stands out above all others: there will be no winners. Victory would provide redemption, but there's not likely to be any here. Over the next few years, these two sides will slug it out in an attempt to become the sole survivor when it comes to providing high definition DVDs. Both will emerge battered but neither will be able to vanquish the other. The two formats (Blu-Ray and HD-DVD) will co-exist until they are made obsolete by the next technology.

Stubbornness and greed are the real problems. Instead of getting together and agreeing on a single standard that would bring high def DVDs to the mainstream, Sony and Toshiba have dug in their heels, oblivious to the dangers of trench warfare. This unenviable situation is the result: some movies arrive in Blu-Ray and others in HD-DVD, but how many stores will carry either? If you're a vidoephile and want access to the full range of high-def titles, you have no choice but to buy one of each kind of player. Neither is casual Christmas gift cheap. HD-DVD players, now selling around $500, will probably drop to $350 a year from now. (Still high, but almost reasonable.)Blu-Ray players are twice that, and the ratio will be similar a year from now. (Waaaaay too high.) Who wants to spend over $1000 on DVD players? High-end enthusiasts, but no one else.

What about a combo player - something that has hardware capable of playing both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray titles? It has been discussed and every once in a while a company will announce something, but there are no firm plans to bring such a device to the market in the near-future. The main issue is cost. The combo player would be in the range of $1200-$1500. Until that price is cut to a third of its current projection, there aren't going to be enough buyers to justify its production.

Most consumers are happy with their standard DVDs and don't feel an overwhelming need to upgrade. Convenience trumps the desire to be on the cutting edge. Who wants to have to juggle multiple DVD players? Home video setups are complicated enough without having to worry about another step in the procedure. It shouldn't require a degree in electronics and a second mortgage to watch a movie at home with the best possible quality.

I have done A/B comparisons of both Blu-Ray/Standard DVD and HD-DVD/Standard DVD. Both high-def formats look better than the low-def one. There's no question about that, nor is it surprising. However, it's equally fair to say that the differences, even on a large HD monitor, are not as stunning as one might expect. A/B comparisons of VHS/DVD were eye-popping; that's one reason why the migration happened so quickly and thoroughly. Not so in this case. High def DVDs are not in the "must have" category. Had there not been a format war, it's possible they might have replaced standard DVDs in the near future (as consumers move from standard TV to HDTV), but the format war has placed them in the niche category - the laserdiscs of the 2000s.

A year ago, many people (including me) thought PS3 would be Sony's ace in the hole, the trump card that would vault Blu-Ray to eventual dominance. That's before all the PS3 problems became public. Aside from the ridiculously high price tag, this gaming system looks like a marketing disaster in progress. How many will spend $600 for a gaming system when a computer can be had for the same amount or less? XBOX 360 has a huge lead time advantage, which translates into more available games, and it's less expensive. (I don't expect the add-on HD-DVD player to be a big seller, at least not until there's a healthy crop of HD-DVD games in stores.) For those who still think game systems should be reasonably priced, there's the Nintendo Wii. Bottom line: PS3 isn't likely to boost Blu-Ray's visibility by much.

So where will we be in five years? DVD will likely still dominate the marketplace, but its preeminence will be challenged by on-line movie availability. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray will be minor players, each dug into their little holes, with HD-DVD probably having a larger market share (due to its lower price). This uneasy co-existence will virtually assure that neither format is taken with much seriousness by the average consumer. As computers become integrated into home entertainment systems, the appeal of downloadable content (especially high-def movies) will become more appealing.

What about in ten years? By 2016, the landscape should have changed. DVDs in 2016 will be like VHS tapes a few years ago - still being produced, but struggling. Everything will be downloadable. New approaches to home movie viewing will be explored, including subscription-based systems that make virtually every title available instantly without any on-premises storage necessary. Movie "collections" will be fading into the past along with DVDs. By then, both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray may have given up the ghost.

Of course, this is all speculative, but it's based on information gathered from dozens of sources. There are many disagreements, and high end video buffs will bombard me with e-mails informing me of the errors of my ways. One thing is certain: the future for high def DVDs is not bright. Even if a standard format is agreed to within the next 12 months (an unlikely prospect), it may be too little too late. The golden goose is already dead.