If the format war is over, what has Blu-ray really won?

The huge trend we saw this week was the move away from the format war. Well prior to Warner Bros.’ announcement, it appeared the major CE manufacturers were working to build the functionality some of them had once planned for their high-definition disc players, into their HDTV displays and set-top boxes instead.

CES Trend #1: If the format war is over, what has Blu-ray really won?
By Scott M. Fulton, III, BetaNews
January 12, 2008, 4:11 PM
Scott Fulton, BetaNews: We really didn’t have enough stories on the format war this week, only a few dozen. And I figured that perhaps to make it an even thirty (or was it forty?) we should close the gap with one more.

The huge trend we saw this week was the move away from the format war. Well prior to Warner Bros.’ announcement, it appeared the major CE manufacturers were working to build the functionality some of them had once planned for their high-definition disc players, into their HDTV displays and set-top boxes instead. A great many of them — with a few prominent exceptions, such as Sony — were about ready to write off their losses and move on.

And honestly, who can blame them? This farce has gone on for too long, and the differences about which both sides are still arguing are not only negligible, but growing more insignificant by the day. For instance, the Internet functionality and updated interactivity layer being built into Blu-ray Profile 2.0 are already being superseded by systems-on-a-chip planned now for the HDTVs to which they would connect.

To say Jackie Emigh’s been digging into some new angles on this story is to say the New England Patriots are scoring some first downs these days. Jackie

Jacqueline Emigh, BetaNews: Scott, doesn’t the timing of Warner’s retraction of Blu-ray support — just days before CES — seem a bit strange to you? And isn’t that about as odd as the seemingly miraculous rebound in Blu-ray sales from November to December?

At this point, it’s kind of hard to believe that it was only this past November that Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer grimly declared the war a stalemate. Industry figures were showing that HD DVD had managed to close its sales gap with Blu-ray in a couple of weeks simply by lowering its prices.

But by December, Stringer was a happy man. Buoyed by an investment estimated at between $500 million and $2.5 billion from Dubai International Capital (DIC)– a fund controlled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktuom, ruler of Dubai — Sony had cut its own pricing on the Blu-ray-enabled PlayStation, and sales had surged back up again in time for Black Friday.

And oh, by the way, a few days after DIC announced its investment in Sony, DIC named Nobuyki Idei — former chief executive of Sony’s chief advisor board — to the board of its own Global Strategic Equities Fund.

And here we are around six weeks later, after a horrific experience for HD DVD at CES, with some folks already ready to sound the death knell for Toshiba’s format.

But ideally, technology wars should be decided on the sole basis of a product’s ability to meet the need of its users. And here, Blu-ray and HD DVD each have their advantages and disadvantages.

Blu-ray, for example, is now in the throes of moving from Profile 1.0 to the incompatible Profile 1.1 to Profile 2.0, a format which is expected to introduce still further incompatibilities.

And although Sony and its partners stand to pick up additional revenues from users who decide to upgrade to newer Blu-ray drives, there’s every possibility that some of them might migrate over to the HD DVD side, too.

Moreover, Blu-ray products are reportedly more costly to make than those that follow the HD DVD format — and in many cases today, the price of a Playstation doesn’t even cover Sony’s manufacturing costs.

So if Blu-ray is in fact going to win the war, it’d really better happen fast, to prevent the kind of price erosion that might interfere drastically with production and profitability.

Yet from a product standpoint, Blu-ray does hold one clear advantage over HD DVD, and it is this: Essentially, Blu-ray disks can hold more data.

Here, Sony seems to have learned well from experience. If you’ve heard about the old videotape wars between VMS and Sony’s Betamax format, you might know that one of the main reasons why Sony lost that particular war revolved around a one-hour tape time for Betamax, versus two or even three hours for the competing VHS.

So, I say, may the best product win the Blu-ray/HD DVD war — regardless of financial investments and real or rumored studio defections.

Scott Fulton: Yes, Jackie, and thank you for that lead-in: I’m still wondering whether either product can genuinely remain the best product in its category for too long. To that end, I have a theory I’m working on. But I’d like to try it out first on our CES analyst, Sharon Fisher.

Sharon, we’re always hearing about companies pledging to “push” the envelope. An old Chuck Yeager phrase. I’ve always said that in order to create a new platform, you have to “break” the envelope. You can evolve platforms incrementally, but to justify a new one, there needs to be a complete new reason for its existence.

Sharon Fisher, BetaNews Senior CES Analyst: I’d go along with that.

Scott: Why build a new interstate system, for instance, unless our cars can fly now?

Sharon: Heh. You’re going to pull in the Freepers with their talk of a Canada-Mexico highway.

Scott: When Comcast advanced its fat pipes model, and demonstrated the idea of turning on the TV selecting what you want to see as opposed to what’s on, that changes everything for me. That deals with the very nature of television itself. That’s when I heard an envelope rip.

Sharon: I suppose. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of serendipity. I’ll watch a movie on TV when I have the same movie in my rack.

Scott: True, but imagine the peace we would have in our lives if the few hours we do spend watching television were watching the good television we want rather than wasting our time with whatever’s on.

Sharon: Part of the reason I don’t get cable is that I know I’d watch History Channel all day, just because I could.

Scott: My wife would say my 24-hour channel would feature photon torpoedoes.

But think about it: The structure of many people’s lives in America revolve around television. The real reason why evening news ratings have dropped is because people work later. The reason why morning news ratings climb is because they go to work earlier.

Then there’s prime-time, a three-hour block for most networks. There’s an industry devoted to that.

Sharon: Television used to be a social phenomenon, too. Everyone would get together to watch Uncle Miltie.

Scott: And there’s “The Tonight Show.” Proof right there, viewing habits revolve around time. Pat Weaver, the great former president of NBC and Sigourney Weaver’s dad pretty much invented television around the concept of the clock.

Well, along comes Comcast. Granted, they’re not really the first to suggest this, but they’re the first with the know-how and the capital to actually pull this off.

Sharon: On the other hand, look at what the writer’s strike has done to TV. All reality shows, all the time.

Scott: “Reality.” Glad I don’t live there.

Sharon: I know. When I want reality, I turn off the TV.

With Comcast’s tru2way, television could become much more participatory. Think of real-time “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” sponsored by YouTube.

Scott: But the big suggestion is that it may become feasible for programs to become recorded entities waiting for our perusal. And yes, participatory.

But imagine how that changes the entire industry. The business model of entertainment production.

Sharon: How would they promote them?

Scott: If you didn’t have to watch CSI any more…why would you???

Sharon: Hey. Some people like CSI.

Scott: So much of network entertainment is placeholder material in-between a few moments of quality. If there were no revenue to be derived from placeholder material, if people could refuse it if it were offered, there would be a huge depression for the entertainment industry.

Sharon: You know, that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about the opposite: the few gems out there being overwhelmed with waves of dreck. As I pointed out earlier this week, Comcast’s big promotion of HD was…Norbit.

Scott: Waves and waves of dreck….disguised as Eddie Murphy. But wouldn’t people reject the waves of dreck out of hand?

Sharon: I don’t think people would refuse what was offered, no. It might be a big boon to the sports industry.

Scott: True! A lot of new sports would get new viewers. Softball.

Sharon: Curling!

Scott: Cricket!

Sharon: I shudder to think about the kids’ programming, though…as the mother of someone who eats, breathes, and sleeps Hannah Montana. She’s put out that I won’t spend $3000 and airfare on a Hannah Montana ticket.

Scott: And on that note of nightmare…I bid you good luck with that, Sharon.



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