While websites like The Digital Bits have been keeping track of, and providing often scathing critical commentary on the looming High Definition format war — which I bet a lot of you didn't even know was happening — it turns out that software manufacturers and studios face an even more prosaic, and potentially tougher, form of uphill battle when it comes to selling the next generation of discs to the public. And a format war is now almost certain to doom both emerging technologies, as this piece at CNET explains.
First, a format war primer. Now that DVDs are entrenched in just about every home in America, having enjoyed the fastest and most enthusiastic mass market penetration of any home entertainment technology ever (over 100 million players have been sold in the US since DVD debuted in late 1997, a figure that doesn't include DVD drives in computers or game systems), it's clearly time to establish a new home video format in order to get you to ditch the huge DVD collections you've already invested gobs of money in, and buy your favorite movies all over again in HD.
Now, that snarky comment isn't entriely fair, I must confess. Because the new formats have been on the drawing boards for years now. Most people, especially folks who have dropped money on 16:9 big screen TVs, would probably be surprised to hear that DVDs are not high definition video. They're massively clearer, of course, than VHS or even laserdiscs ever were. But they still use the standard definition analog NTSC encoding standard (PAL in Europe). This allows you, at best, 480 horizontal lines of resolution. The reason DVDs have to use either the NTSC or PAL standards is because of the MPEG-2 compression the video has to undergo in order to be stored on the disc, and because most everyone is still watching their DVDs on their old analog televisions which understand NTSC or PAL, with its 30 fps frame rate that differs from the 24 fps frame rate used by movies.
But the digital age is coming fast — all broadcast and cable is expected to be entirely digital by 2009 — washing away NTSC and PAL the way that big asteroid washed away the hapless dinosaurs. And the new discs are poised to take full advantage of the technology. Blu-ray is one of the formats; HD-DVD the other. Both formats have advantages and disadvantages to be ironed out from a manufacturing and marketing standpoint. But both, technologically speaking, have mad storage capacity (Blu-ray is said to allow for multiple, not just dual, layers, upping the ante to the 200 GB range) allowing room for much higher resolution video codecs than MPEG-2, providing true 1080 line resolution. Word is, from people who have seen these playing at trade shows, that it will make you faint dead away.
Problem: two formats, just like VHS and Beta. And the developers of each have been mulishly stubborn in reaching common ground, forcing studios and other developers (like computer and game companies) to choose sides. For a while it looked like Blu-ray had a decisive upper hand, especially after both Apple and Sony (for the PS3) hopped on. But, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, late last year several movie studios began hedging their bets, announcing their support for both formats. All the while, public-advocacy DVD websites continued to yell at these guys to get their shit together, or see a technology that could truly revolutionize the home theater experience go the way of SACD and DVD-Audio. ("What are those?" you ask. Precisely.)
But now we see a new wrinkle in the picture. Those clever satellite and cable companies — spurred by TiVO — have been making more on-demand movies and programming available to their subscribers, and people are going for it. So much so, in fact, that on-demand is already impacting and slowing down the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of DVD sales. Now when cable and satellite finally go fully digital and HD formatted, on-demand is expected to be so pervasive, even becoming the public's #1 viewing-habit-of-choice (I'm hearing rumors that networks are considering rendering the old practice of "schedules" and "time slots" utterly extinct), that the concern now is consumers will vastly prefer on-demanding a movie they want to see far more than they'll be interested in buying a $25 disc of that same movie which, in all honesty, they're likely to watch only once. And why shouldn't they? They'd simply be carrying over viewing habits they already practice.
So are Blu-ray and HD-DVD already doomed? I don't think so. There's too much cash and R&D effort already invested in the formats. But I think the halcyon days of DVD making everyone and his dog a big movie collector are waning. I remember in the 90's that, as a laserdisc owner, my hobby of collecting movies in a high quality home video format was rather unusual and kind of a snob-appeal thing. This decade, DVD made an elitist hobby a mass-market fad. But go to any place that sells used DVDs, and you'll see piles of copies of mainstream Hollywood movies, while very few copies of, say, Criterion or other speciality label or import titles — the kinds of things the movie snobs who collected laserdiscs were interested in 12 years ago.
What I think will happen, as far as movies and home theater are concerned (expect much bigger market acceptance in video games), is that you'll see HD disc formats become, as laserdiscs were in the 90's, a snob format for the real movie buff, the folks who'd rather watch Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles (who even frickin' know who those guys are) than Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller. And the mainstream public, the folks who will buy 7 million copies of The Wedding Crashers on DVD this week and trade them in to the used-disc store a month later, will settle into the on-demand/Netflix routine. And that's fine. As long as there's a format of choice available for everyone, I suppose.