Thursday, January 10, 2008

Blu-ray wins the 21st century’s first format war

The latest great format war is over, and the winner is Blu-ray.

For the past 18 months, Sony-backed Blu-ray and Toshiba-backed HD DVD have battled it out to be the high-definition successor to DVD. During that time, Blu-ray seemed to have the upper hand, but the final blow came late last week.

Warner Bros., which had been releasing its movies in both formats, announced it will go exclusively with Blu-ray, joining other entertainment-industry heavy hitters Disney, Sony Pictures and Fox.

Warner currently sells more DVDs than any other Hollywood studio. But with DVD sales leveling off, it wanted to eliminate consumer and retailer confusion regarding Blu-ray and HD DVD, a company executive said at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. That obviously meant using Warner’s huge film and TV library to tip the balance in Blu-ray’s favor.

Warner’s decision leaves only Paramount, Universal and mini-major studio DreamWorks in the HD DVD camp. Industry observers expect all three to make the leap to Blu-ray by the middle of the year. Blu-ray sales and rentals were outpacing HD DVD’s even before Warner’s decision to go exclusively Blu-ray. The remaining HD DVD-aligned studios simply can’t afford to stay on a sinking ship.

Toshiba executives say the fight isn’t over yet, but it is. They just haven’t admitted it. Toshiba’s position is either spin or a river in Egypt.

So, if you purchased the first season of Universal’s “Heroes” on HD DVD, you probably shouldn’t count on seeing subsequent seasons released on that format.

While this is bad news for HD DVD’s early adopters, at least we shouldn’t hear a lot of complaints this time around about how the “better” format didn’t win. Most videophiles either rate Blu-ray and HD DVD as about equal or give Blu-ray the edge. That wasn’t the case with the last big home video format war — the war between VHS and Betamax.

Sony’s Betamax videotape format died an ignominious death in the early 1980s, and Beta’s partisans cried foul. They said Beta’s audio and video quality were superior to VHS’s, which they were. Thus, Beta’s failure was proof that the “better” format doesn’t always win.

But “better” is a relative term. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for millions of years until an asteroid wiped them out, paving the way for mammals that had barely eked out an existence during the dinosaurs’ reign. Which was better adapted to survive? That depended entirely on the environment at the time.
During the Betamax/VHS war, the environment favored VHS. Consumers were willing to sacrifice Beta’s superior audio-video quality to get what VHS offered: double the recording time. That was a decided advantage when most consumers just wanted to tape TV shows for later viewing.

Besides, true videophiles didn’t need Beta. They clung to their laserdiscs, which served the niche home-theater market until smaller, more convenient and technologically superior DVDs came along.

So, Blu-ray has vanquished HD DVD and will, in time, replace standard DVDs just as DVDs replaced VHS. Then what? Will we be embroiled in yet another format war in 10 or 15 years?

I suspect not. What is probably next is digital downloading. You won’t have to buy a physical product at all. Instead, you’ll download movies and TV shows directly into some kind of storage/playback device.

That means there won’t be much incentive to replace Blu-ray as the format of choice for consumers who prefer a physical object to bits in a box. Blu-ray may reign for a while, only to become the video equivalent of an audio CD in an MP3 world.

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