Blu Ray vs. HD DVD Format War

Next Gen Optical Wars

The most talked about advance in home theater today has to be the impending war between HD DVD and Blu-Ray. The giants of the consumer electronics world are taking sides. Effectively, the Blu-Ray camp consists of Sony and Philips while HD DVD was developed by NEC and Toshiba among others. The war has resonated into other areas of consumer electronics. Sony's PlayStation3, for instance, will include Blu-Ray technology, prompting games console competitor Microsoft to side with HD DVD even though the technology will not be included on their Xbox 360.

Both Blu-Ray and HD DVD evolved to be the replacement for DVD. Conventional DVD technology was developed specifically for NTSC video, but there was a need for a more advanced system. With the popularity of HDTV, the DVD's age is only just starting to show even though it's only been available to consumers since 1997. A new system of storage is needed that can handle the massive requirements of high-definition video which can run around four times the requirements of NTSC. HD DVD has answered the call, upping the 9G (double density) capacity of DVD with a 30G (double density) disc that has more than enough capacity for the average-length film in HD resolutions and enough on the side to store a few extra features.

Sony has entered the next gen DVD competition with Blu-Ray, which takes storage capacity even further with a double-density disc that can store up to 50Gigs. Both technologies use a blue laser to read even smaller code on discs than conventional red-laser DVD technologies are capable of. The narrower wavelength of the blue laser enables the disc to be stuffed with even more information.

The idea we consumers are going to rush to the store to re-buy our DVD collections in a new format and buy a new player with little to offer over the DVD player we already have is a highly optimistic assumption on the part of Sony and Toshiba.

Who will be the winner of the next gen optical storage medium? Perhaps the one that bypassed the home player game and focuses on PC rewritable media. The idea we consumers are going to rush to the store to re-buy our DVD collections in a new format after we buy a new player with little to offer over the DVD player we already have is a highly optimistic assumption on the part of Sony and Toshiba.

In other words, the winner will not be the one that plays by the market strategy that made the DVD so successful. In 1997 DVD made sense. But in 2006 when the new formats will be hitting the market there is a new competitor on the scene whether the big consumer electronics want to admit it is a legitimate player in this game or not. It's the bit torrents - mass storage hard drives and media players that communicate directly with your HTPC. Most forward thinking households already have a PVR enabled device, the fastest-growing consumer set-top box today. The arena of consumer preference always give the nod toward flexibility and control over the media that entertains even at the behest of quality audio and/or video. All HD DVD and Blu Ray will have on DVD is better quality audio and video, and this isn't likely to be enough, even at low costs to get consumers to trade in their DVD players.

The high-resolution audio formats (SACD and DVD Audio respectively) entered the marketplace about the same time Napster and other file-sharing programs were causing controversy. Clearly, music file sharing of technically poor audio quality MP3s won out over high-resolution audio even though file sharing was pushed underground and declared illegal. It's only a matter of time before the studios begin to see the value of legitimizing movie download services like iTunes - perhaps iMovies. The .movie file will be stored on the user's network and then passed to a network-enabled playback device when the consumer selects the film from a menu system library rather than having to thumb through shelves full of silver discs. The long-term winner could be the format which fits easily into PC and rewritable technologies.

So far, this would be Blu-Ray. Philips already has a Blu-Ray writer PC unit on the way out early in '06. But with Microsoft vowing to puts its considerable muscle behind HD DVD, could their influence in PC hardware have more sway in the long term?