By Michael Rau
February 25, 2008
The war is over All hail the conqueror!
Okay - That's a little over the top. But I'm happy to report (as I'm sure you heard days ago) that the long-simmering dispute between two competing formats for encoding high-definition DVDs is over. One of the players has thrown in the towel.
The loser is Toshiba. Their format was HD-DVD. The winner was Sony with their Blu-Ray format. And in my opinion, if only one format could succeed due to market forces, the superior format is the survivor.
In a column I wrote almost two years ago discussing the two formats, I wrote that I was betting on Blu-Ray. But I also pointed out that my choice in videotape formats 20 years earlier (Betamax) was the eventual loser in that particular contest, so I might not be the best handicapper.
I do have to revise my comparison, though. At the time, I compared the contest between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray with that which took place between VHS and Beta.
In hindsight, while there are certainly similarities, the battle for domination in videotape formats was much bigger. Here's why:
The introduction of videotape recording into the mass market represented an actual paradigm shift in the way we consumed movies and television programs. It meant we could watch these things when we chose rather than when they were scheduled to be presented by someone else.
The competition to dominate the market in high-definition DVD formats simply represents an advancement in quality - not an alteration influencing lifestyle.
And this particular victory may prove to be rather hollow as time goes by.
While some form a hard data storage and delivery media will perpetuate - and that format may very well be Blu-Ray DVDs, I believe delivery of video programming at the consumer level will continue an inexorable gravitation towards direct digital delivery - either through direct access to programming such as is made available through so-called video-on-demand services offered by cable and satellite companies, or through a downloaded digital file from a service such as the iTunes Store.
But perhaps more telling is consumer adaptation.
As with all improvements in technology, you can reach a point where they become mere tweaks that aren't significant enough to impact the average consumer.
A good example of this is the evolution of processor speeds in computers. We long ago surpassed the point where the average casual user can appreciate the increases because they don't do anything that really benefits from faster processors. Consumers are much more affected by available bandwidth and resulting online download speeds than processor speeds (coincidently, download speed is the biggest obstacle to online delivery of high-def video files due to their size).
So the question is: How much does the average consumer care about the difference in quality between standard-def and high-def DVDs? Based on market research, maybe not a whole lot.
Around the same time that high-def DVDs and players started to become available, so-called up-converting DVD players were proliferating in the market. The vast majority of consumers couldn't discern any significant difference in quality between standard-def DVDs played through an up-converting DVD player and a high-def DVD, when played on the same display.
With high-def DVDs and players costing significantly more than their standard-def counterparts, most consumers haven't yet made the jump to high-def DVDs, thus so far relegating them to a niche market.
Some analysts think that recent declines in prices for Blu-Ray DVDs and players may stall or even reverse now that Sony has the monopoly. This is a potential consequence of the elimination of competition, but it would be a mistake on their part as if Sony fails to recognize where their real competition is coming from because the long-term success of this form of media is anything but certain.
And in fairness to Sony, this is one of those rare occasions when there could probably only be one survivor- a lesson they learned the hard way in the VCR wars.
I would like to commend Toshiba for their graceful withdrawal from the battlefield. Too often, such competition can go on long after practicality dictated otherwise. When that happens, the consumer is invariably the loser, and with Universal Studios and Microsoft still on the HD-DVD bandwagon, Toshiba could have opted to drag the demise out for much longer.
For those of you who put your eggs in the HD-DVD basket, well - I feel for you. I really do. After all, 20-odd years ago I got stuck with a $300 Beta VCR (yeah - they were expensive back then) and quite a few tapes with no shelf life.
My only suggestion - unless you find someone offering a trade-in or something - is to put your HD-DVD deck away for 10 years or so. By that time, someone will be desperate enough for a player in this format that you might even recoup your original investment.
The future of HD-DVD is now non-existent. How deeply Blu-Ray will penetrate its way into our consciousness is pretty much anyone's guess. Proponents still have to prove to the average consumer that high-def DVDs are worth the added cost.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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