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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Burning Questions: More from the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD Front

Burning Questions: More from the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD Front

"Content is king. This long-held observation has often been cited by those who believe content availability could tip the scales in a format war. The most recent spate of content-related announcements from backers of Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD--the formats competing for the throne currently occupied by DVD--appear to shift the balance between the two camps--at least, for the moment.

This time out, the newsmakers are Warner Bros. Entertainment and Hewlett-Packard. And, as with the developments I reported on last month (from Intel and Microsoft, and from Paramount), there's more to these announcements than initially meets the eye.

Warner Joins Team Blu-ray

The availability of content is a critical factor in determining which of the formats in this protracted war has the best chance of survival. Assuming equal pricing and availability of hardware, if more content is available for one format over the other, the format with the larger selection of content will have the edge. Likewise, the format most likely to prevail is the one that requires us as consumers to sacrifice as little as possible; for example, the format that lets us have all of our favorite films, regardless of which studio distributes them.

With Warner's mid-October proclamation that it would join the Blu-ray Disc Association, Blu-ray gained an edge over HD-DVD. Warner says it will release both current and catalog content in the Blu-ray format as well as the HD-DVD format, if both go to market.

Warner's announcement means that five out of the six major studios are supporting Blu-ray--Paramount, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Walt Disney Company, and Warner--or 80 percent of the market. That's in addition to ESPN, Miramax, MGM (which announced its support earlier this month), Lions Gate Entertainment, and Touchstone; gaming giant Electronic Arts; and music powerhouses Sony BMG and Universal Music Group. In short, quite a spate of content providers have lined up now behind Blu-ray Disc--far more than HD-DVD has gathered at this juncture.

Like Paramount before it, Warner is covering its bases by making sure the company is positioned well, regardless of which format wins out. The harsh realities of a dual-format marketplace prompted Warner's switch from being a staunch supporter of HD-DVD to straddling the line between formats.

Hedging Bets

Warner's motive was simple. Says Jim Cardwell, president of Warner's home video arm, "We realized recently that it was likely that both formats would go to market--and we didn't want consumers not to have access to our movies. We wanted to make sure all consumers with high-definition players could watch [our] high-definition movies."

However, Warner still had concerns about Blu-ray--namely, the cost of replicating discs. So the company tabled a proposition to the Blu-ray Disc Association.

"We knew Blu-ray was close to finalizing its specification," explains Cardwell, "and we wanted certain things in the specification. It reached a point in time where we didn't want the ship to sail and miss the opportunity. We felt we could more effectively lobby for those functionalities if we were members of the Blu-ray Disc Association."

Given some of Warner's previous concerns about Blu-ray (which I wrote about in my August interview with Steve Nickerson, senior vice president of market management for Warner Home Video), the additions to the Blu-ray spec that Warner sought were not surprising.

"We wanted the player to be capable of playing back a [9GB] high-definition red-laser disc, which we call BD-9," says Cardwell. "[The disc] would have a high enough capacity for our movies, and it would have a lower cost than the [25GB] BD-25. The advantage would be lower costs to manufacture the disc, because it could be manufactured on existing [DVD production] lines. Certainly, most of our movies will fit on a BD-9. The issue will be how much enhanced content will we put on there. For basic movies, most will fit on BD-9."

Although the Blu-ray Disc Association has not formally announced the format, Cardwell reports that it has "been proposed and accepted by the BDA."

A Red-Laser Blu-ray Disc

The resulting disc will be encoded with a high-definition video codec, and though it will be a red-laser disc (not a blue-laser disc as used by the other formats within the Blu-ray Disc specifications), it will only play back in Blu-ray Disc players and recorders. Even though vendors will be able to manufacture the disc on existing DVD production lines, it is clearly not the same as an HD-DVD. (One of HD-DVD's strengths is its purported ability to be produced at a low cost on existing, albeit modified, DVD production lines).

Wolfgang Schlichting, research director for removable storage at IDC, agrees that using a red-laser disc could save vendors money--at least in the short term, until Blu-ray ramps up its manufacturing, which will in turn drive down costs.

"You could have cost savings if you go with red laser, because you're working with larger [data] pits on the disc," explains Schlichting. "The density is not as high as with blue laser. That could make it easier for [disc] mastering, which is still a challenge for Blu-ray because of its very fine structure."

In spite of Warner's decision to support Blu-ray, if both formats proceed to market, Cardwell stresses that Warner content will come out on both. "We're going to target getting the software out at exactly the same time as the hardware," he says. "We plan to put out major catalog titles and major new releases in both formats; we have not decided exactly how many titles to put out at launch."" [more]

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