February 21, 2008
Blu-Ray Declared HD Winner, Ending Format War

I wanted to start a string of blog updates this afternoon/evening by making note of the end of the format war that has divided HD television owners for some time now. However, now that the DVD format war is over, despite what might be lost in innovation and pricing for the consumer, one would think a consolidated technology will help push innovation forward on the content side and likewise ease consumer reluctance in adopting the new technology.

For those who haven't followed the events, news surfaced earlier this week (see here) that Toshiba has conceded the market battle with Sony between its HD DVD format and Sony's Blu-Ray.

As with others I know, since I hadn't taken a personal stake in the battle up to this point and never purchased and HD player, this is a victory because it means consumers now know which technology to invest in, but I still feel there's some bad branding involved when the format which won carries the name "Blu-Ray" instead of the more intuitive "HD DVD." Perhaps they could just buy Toshiba's much simpler brand name in the process?

According to the piece which appeared on Time's site (linked above):

In the short term, Toshiba's defeat not only leaves 1 million HD DVD customers worldwide with dead-end hardware but also ends a rivalry that kept down prices for players and pushed the Blu-ray group to match the features available on HD DVD players.

Analysts say people interested in getting a Blu-ray player would do well to wait. For one thing, it will take 12 to 18 months for Blu-ray players to become as cheap and full-featured as HD DVD players, which have been selling for just over $100, according to ABI Research.

Many people who did buy HD DVD players did so recently. In fact, Toshiba said the holiday season was its best ever.

As the article points out, the decisions of Warner Brothers, Netflix, and Wal-Mart to exclusively favor Blu-Ray ended Toshiba's chances this month. Now, all the major Hollywood studios have officially announced their alliance with Blu-Ray.

As I previously pointed out, format wars are nothing new to television and home video, and it's often customers who lose, even as the competing formats helped control prices. But knowledge that a technology will eventually become "dead-end" makes adapting to that new technology difficult for consumers.

Also, see this post about the many ways HD DVD fans had previously rallied behind the Toshiba format when Blu-Ray had a slight advantage. I wrote, "This support for the brand is more than just Toshiba brand loyalty. It is also about desperation. It is likely that only one of these technologies will become the industry standard, and Sony is doing all it can to entrench its brand. Toshiba users, hoping to make sure that their investment in an HD DVD player does not slowly disappear in the quicksand of oblivion, are doing all they can to support the brand and universal HD DVD players."

Now, there are a few people I know stuck with a collection of HD DVDs. The films can still be enjoyed, of course, but one wonders what happens when their player breaks at some point in the distant future. It's like my increasing problem finding a good player to be able to access all those VHS tapes I have in tubs in the basement.

It comes as no surprise all the comparisons being made to Betamax, and I think back to David Thorburn's story about why so much of his early television archive he showed in his classes ended up on Betamax, because he had been assured that was the superior technology and that there was no way VHS would win out. David ended up stuck bringing his Betamax player to class, since even classes equipped with televisions wouldn't have a Betamax player. Now, it's increasingly harder to access those VHS tapes. With people like me, who have hundreds of VHS tapes archiving their media of choice (primarily pro wrestling in my case), the format switch can be a major hassle.

I just hope that, with the format war over, while technological innovation in HD DVDs may be stifled, the proliferation of content development can begin.