Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Format War

This isn't one of my better works, but I turned it in. I scored 92/100. I really wanted to go into much greater detail than 300-500 words would allow--I already hit over 900 words. This is by no means a comprehensive look at the current format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD. It is simply an explanation that there is a format war, and what it's about.

Nearly 25 years ago American consumers were first given the possibility of affordably keeping a library of movies and watching them at home. VCRs and video cassettes had become cheap enough that the average American household could start building a collection of video tapes containing major release movie titles. But they faced a decision whether to use VHS or Betamax video tape format. By the late 1980's the format war was over. Betamax was no longer a competitor and the VHS format had won by a landslide.

In 1996, the DVD was born (Taylor). The advantages that DVDs offered over the VHS video tapes were so great that in only five years DVD players were outselling VCRs (Equinox). Consumers replaced their prized collections of movies on VHS for the same titles--and more--on DVD.

With the recent advent of High-Definition television (Hi-Def or HD for short) came the demand for Hi-Def video discs. Hi-Def videos use anywhere between four and sixteen times the amount of data as Standard Definition video (the ordinary TV quality video we've been watching for decades). With the increased requirements from Hi-Def, our beloved DVDs won't be able to handle feature-length movies. Consumers are now being offered two competing discs to replace DVDs. As a result, we're facing the format war all over again, this time with two different discs: Blu-ray and HD-DVD.

In June 2007, we're still in the heat of the format war that began roughly five years ago. Sony, with the support of several other companies, created the Blu-ray Disc format (abbreviated BD), so named because of the blue laser used in reading the discs. The HD DVD format (which also uses a blue laser) was created primarily by Toshiba. The two companies are in a game of leapfrog, making improvements to their formats. In one example, the HD DVD format was first standardized with a maximum storage capacity of 15 Gigabytes (GB). Shortly thereafter, Sony touted that Blu-ray offered a capacity of 25 GB. Toshiba countered by doubling the capacity of the HD DVD format with new double-layer technology to 30 GB. Sony reacted and, using the same technology, doubled the Blu-ray format to 50GB, where it stands today. Recently, Toshiba retaliated by announcing triple-layer technology that will be used to push the HD DVD discs up to 51 GB. And on it goes.

Both sides know that the moment there is a clear leader, that lead will turn into a landslide. But, determining which format is winning is hotly debated. Each side spouts statistics trying to show the world that their format is the winner in this war, but the stats don't necessarily represent the truth. The numbers are handpicked and spin-doctored to give the impression of victory. One side will state that it's winning by the quantity of movie titles released under its format, and the other will show that it's leading with the number of discs purchased for their format. One side will proclaim itself the victor in the total number of players sold, and the other will counter with statistics showing more players sold for the current year. And the numbers are constantly changing from month to month, quarter to quarter.

An article by Martin Lynch in The Inquirer from June 7th, 2007 is a good example of how confusing and volatile this horse race is. "Figures from March estimate that Sony shipped 5.5 million [PlayStation 3] consoles [with Blu-ray players] by March, but has only sold over three million of them." (Lynch). Lynch goes on to explain that a recent announcement by a Toshiba exec has the potential to launch HD DVD ahead of Blu-ray: starting in "2008, every Toshiba laptop will sport a HD DVD drive as standard....IDC estimated that Toshiba sold 9.2 million laptops in 2006," (Lynch) which should equate to putting somewhere near 10 million HD DVD players in the hands of consumers by the end of 2008--just from Toshiba laptops, not counting stand alone HD DVD players. The article doesn't mention that Sony may return the blow and add Blu-ray drives as standard to Sony Vaio laptops.

It doesn't look like there will be a winner anytime soon. Early adopters and videophiles may want to pick their favorite format and root for their team, but it's risky at this date, for the average consumer to jump in on the side of one format or the other. Combo players (players that work with both formats) are available so that consumers can get the benefits of Hi-Def video now without waiting to see which disc format wins. Combo players, however, are still beyond the budget of most of us. The safe route is to wait and see who wins the format war before ditching your collection of DVDs for the next big thing. Who knows, the way it looks now, maybe these two sides will keep battling it out, and in a year or two there will be another upstart technology that beats them both.

Sources Cited:
Taylor, Jim DVD Demystified "DVD Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers)" Jan 2007. Viewed June 2007

Equinox (user alias) Movie-List "Movie-List Forums" “DVD: A Quick History and Facts” December 2002. Viewed June 2007

Lynch, Martin The Inquirer "HD DVD has a secret weapon: Toshiba drops a bomb" June 7, 2007

No comments: