- Jan 20, 2006
I’ve covered the high-def format battle longer, perhaps, than any other reporter. I started writing about it sometime back in 2002, when JVC came out with its tape-based D-VHS format, and I had to fight to get stories about it in the paper.
From there, I followed the development of what became Blu-ray Disc, first as an MPEG 2-based recording format and later as a prerecorded format, as well as HD DVD from its earliest days as the Advanced Optical Disc format.
And now that the format war is well and truly over, I have a strangely empty feeling inside, as if I don’t know what to do with my life…
Just kidding! Thank God that’s over. No one was more tired of writing about that mishugas than me. And it’s to everyone’s benefit that the industry has finally settled on a single, high-def format, particularly the consumer, who can now make a rational decision about whether to upgrade to high-def.
Still, it has been a remarkable story to cover, not least because it’s a story of how individual companies, pursuing narrow, often parochial interests, led to the industry’s adopting what—I’ll now confess—I’ve always believed is the wrong format.
I don’t say that lightly; I have many friends and sources at Blu-ray-affiliated companies whose judgments I respect, who appear sincerely to believe in the benefits of Blu-ray over HD DVD. And as a reporter and analyst, it wasn’t my role to take sides. But I never did buy Blu-ray’s alleged benefits, and I think the industry will pay a price for getting it wrong.
Blu-ray supporters long touted the benefits of Blu-ray’s larger single-disc capacity than HD DVD, pointing to the ability to include more bonus features, or use higher bit-rate encodings, or accommodate new, future applications. But the more-is-better theory seemed to me both a rationalization and to fly in the face of what we know about the direction of technology change.
The reason Blu-ray has more capacity is because it was developed to record MPEG 2 video, a relatively inefficient compression format that requires more capacity to store a respectable amount of programming.
In order to achieve that higher storage capacity, however, Blu-ray engineers had to completely reconfigure the structure of the disc, moving the data layer closer to the surface. That may be fine for a recording format, but it completely changes the physics of pressing prerecorded discs, requiring new processes and the retrofitting of replication capacity worldwide.
Going to such lengths to engineer more capacity into the disc itself, moreover, seemed like a very “analog” approach to the problem. Digital compression formats and encoders have only gotten more efficient over time, requiring less space and lower bit rates.
If I were worried about “future-proofing” my format, I would have bet on better software, not bigger discs.
If I some day needed more capacity, I would have put a flash drive in the player itself and downloaded any additional content.
Baking a Java-based interactivity layer into the format itself also seemed like a rather retro approach.
The clear trend in consumer electronics is toward network-enabled devices capable of interacting across the Internet or a home network. The idea that implementing “cool” new applications requires devices natively capable of executing every type of complex code programmers may some day come up with strikes me as another bad bet. Especially when you consider the additional royalty costs it imposes on player manufacturers and, ultimately, consumers, and the more complex (and therefore expensive) authoring required to implement even relatively simple features.
The fundamental misconception Blu-ray supporters in the industry held, in my judgment, was that time was on their side.
It is not. The industry had a relatively short window to get a viable high-def format into the market before standard-def DVD sales turned negative and before new forms of delivery began to chip away at the upside for any new optical-disc format.
The priorities, apart from high quality, should have been speed and cost, not features future-proofing. That may not sound sexy, but it would have made more business sense.
Had the industry adopted HD DVD two years ago, when it was ready and Blu-ray (and the PlayStation 3) was not, the format could have ridden the peak of the wave of consumer upgrades to high-def displays by attaching HD DVD players to those purchases and building the installed base in time to head off the decline in standard DVD sales.
What the industry has instead is a higher cost format, inadequate replication capacity and a shorter window in which to recoup its investment.
There, it’s off my chest. Viva Blu-ray!
Blu blues - 2/22/2008 12:41:00 PM - ContentAgenda.com - CA6534710
More Blu bashing!