Wednesday, January 04, 2006

HD format war meets public indifference

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.


Anonymous said...

I think the reasons SACD never really caught on were because:

1) You had the buy a new player for the SACDs. These things, best I can recall from my ventures in Circuit City, were blinkin' expensive. When you can buy a Walkman CD Player for $20 at Target, why the heck would you want to blow $300 on a product which requires...

2) SACDs, which were/are really expensive ($30 for one CD? C'mon...). The most ironic part of this, which made me giggle shamelessly, was that SACDs' big thing was that they were supposed to sound like you were listening to a record or in the studio itself. I am actually a record collector (one of those "vinyl is God" types), and when you can go to a used record store and buy the actual record for under $5 (and getting a decent old record player isn't expensive, either), why would you want to buy this super-advanced CD that sounds like a record?

Have you ever used SACDs or DVD-Audio yourself? Would you say that they were any better than actual CDs (or records, or tapes)?

As for the Blu-ray and HD-DVD advancements, about the only thing that amazes me is that they can fit 200 GB on a disc. I mean, that's my entire hard drive, that's pretty amazing -- I suspect that whenever the format is officially released, it will be bigger with data freaks (those with huge amounts of things stashed on their computers; this is assuming they have a burnable Blu-ray) than with movie buffs, just because of the space presented. Although cramming the entirety of the extended version of "Lord of the Rings," or basically any boxed set of television shows, onto one disc would be pretty damn cool.

It will all depend on pricing, I suspect. Think: to really benefit from the format when presented movie-style, you'd have to have an HDTV. Some of us poor bastards can't exactly afford those yet, and will toss the format aside simply because it does us no good. But those that can afford it will probably give it a shot...which would end up with HD-DVD/Blu-ray going rather the way of the Laserdisc.

Martin Wagner said...

Right now the first Blu-ray and HD-DVD players are being priced at about the same level as the first-gen DVD players, $400-700 or so; they can be expected to come down dramatically in a year to 18 months, like all home electronics. The movies themselves are expected to be priced comparably to DVDs, maybe a touch higher but $25 is the average I'm hearing. And though HDTVs may still be above many poor bastards' budgets, overall their sales have been described as "soaring". What you had to shell out $8K for in 2000 you can now get for $2K.

It should also be noted that the higher storage capacity on a high-def disc does not necessarily mean you're going to get scads more material packed on one disc, like the whole LOTR trilogy or an entire season of Buffy. Cool as that may be. The higher storage capacity is what makes the more advanced, non-compressed high-definition digital video codec possible; believe it or not there is a noticable leap in image quality from the DVDs you have now to full HD. Whether or not this will sell the format to Will and Wendy Walmart and the Coors Light Brigade is another question. I think the great unwashed will stick to on-demand and standard DVD, personally, while the cinema snobs gravitiate toward Blu-ray. It will all come down, of course, to how — or even if — the format war shakes out.

BTW: I've never listened to SACDs or DVD-Audio myself, though I'm told that with the proper 5.1 setup some of them sound awesome and distinctly superior. But how many folks listen to music parked in a chair in a geographically centered sweet spot? For me, a nice AAC file on my iPod gets the job done fine, and I'm perfectly happy with standard CDs 20 years after I bought my first player.