There’s no denying that fact that I’ve been an HD-DVD supporter since the format war started, and the day that Toshiba pulled the plug on the format, my brother-in-law ribbed me about not having a blog post on it yet. :) Well, here’s that blog post, just a few weeks late. (disclaimer: as noted on my About Me page, I work at a company that participated in HD-DVD. It also created Microsoft Bob. These are my opinions, not my employers’, yadda yadda.) Bear with me as I tell you why many consumers are losing now, and how consumers will likely lose in the next round of digital media format wars.
I read an interesting article today on MSNBC that touted two of Sony’s upcoming Blu-ray players: the BDP-S350 ($400) and the BDP-S550 ($500). In short, the S350 will contain an ethernet port that won’t work at launch this summer (but will be enabled later through a firmware update), and the S550 will be Internet enabled at launch (the article doesn’t specify when it will launch). It’s interesting to note that both of these stand-alone Blu-ray players cost in the same ballpark as the PlayStation 3. Insert your own conspiracy theory here. 🙂
A little bit of history is required here about Blu-ray and HD-DVD, and I’m going to editorialize a bit (full Wikipedia article here for Blu-ray and HD-DVD if you want to know more than I’m about to spill, without my editorializing).
The HD-DVD spec was initially introduced through the DVD Forum in late 2002 (then called Advanced Optical Disc), and members of the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) tried to vote down the AOD format twice (presumably, they wanted to control the technology, and therefore the ensuing stream of royalties). The Blu-ray Disc physical specifications weren’t complete until 2004, and BD-ROM specs weren’t finalized until 2006. HD-DVD’s earlier market availability made members of the BDA rush to get something out the door: enter Blu-ray Profile 1.0. Toshiba came to market with an HD-DVD player in March 2006, beating Blu-ray to market by three months. At this point, we’re fully involved in a format war. In my mind, Blu-ray was rushed to market to compete with HD-DVD.
The BDA allegedly spent a ton of money to get major Hollywood studios on-board with their format, and, as we now know, they won out. Sony clearly learned their lessons from the Betamax/VHS days, knowing that professionally produced content would drive success in any format war.
However, not all is rosy in the world of Blu-ray: Profile 1.0 has since been followed up by Profile 1.1 (November 2007) and Profile 2.0 (a.k.a. "BD-Live", January 2008). Now, new versions of a format aren’t necessarily a bad thing: technology moves on. But Profile 1.0 players and 1.1 players are not capable of being upgraded to these later Profiles, with the notable exception of Sony’s own PlayStation 3. In this regard, an early Blu-ray player is just as useful now as an HD-DVD player that supports a dead format. Members of the BDA have gone on record to say that "early adopters knew what they were getting into" (source), and many of them will have to buy new players if they want to experience the full promise of Blu-ray. It’s interesting to note that the HD-DVD spec, which was finalized from its launch, supported most of the functionality in Profile 2.0, most notably the inclusion of Internet connectivity. The aforementioned MSNBC article even addresses this:
In these respects, Blu-ray players are playing catch-up to HD DVD players, which have had Internet- and picture-in-picture capabilities since they first came out in 2006.
To this point, what I’ve told you has been documented on numerous sites, and is nothing new. Here’s my twist: what happens next?
The next format war (HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray wasn’t new – remember Betamax vs. VHS?), of which I think everyone agrees there will be a next format war of some kind, will be a mess for consumers. It’s now been proven that you can rush an unfinished spec to market, and win. I’d be willing to bet that the next war that happens starts with two competing formats that have unfinished specs, and then all the early adopters will lose out.
I know this is a long rant, and I’ve probably made a mistake or two here and there. Feel free to point that out in comments.