January 24, 2008

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Media calls DVD war for Sony
Just look how right they were in the primary
By John ďjaQĒ Andrews† jandrews@hippopress.com

Itís official: HD DVD has lost the next-generation DVD format war, vanquished by the might of Sonyís Blu-ray.

Or so analysts all over the tech scene are saying. The tide has certainly turned, but projecting the winner now might turn out to be a foolís errand.

The big event that has the geek media convinced of Toshibaís HD DVD formatís imminent demise is the announcement by Warner Brothers that it will be releasing titles solely on Blu-Ray discs come June. It had previously released titles on both formats, and was in fact one of the first studios with HD DVD movies out the door. No doubt thatís a big move, taking studio support from roughly equal in both camps to a marked advantage for Blu-Ray. Add to that the news that several adult film companies are switching their allegiances from HD DVD to Blu-ray and you have a veritable juggernaut.

Usually, competition is good for consumers. Even in this case, the prices of HD DVD and Blu-ray players have fallen very quickly since their introduction. Once over $1,000, HD DVD players can now be had for under $150 , and $300 for a Blu-ray player isnít uncommon. Both formats sport flagship players with free-after-rebate movie offers, letting you jumpstart a collection of up to 10 titles right away. Which is good, because if you choose the losing format, you might not be able to buy any more movies.

And therein lies the problem with this and other format wars: since youíre buying not just a device but a platform upon which your media will depend, you canít just buy the one that suits your needs. Your playerís continuing usefulness depends on industry support, and while the consumer has some say in this battleís outcome, the real decisions are made by the industry, and youíll buy what they tell you, dadgummit.

It really couldíve gone either way. HD DVDís main advantage was always cost ó since the manufacturing process was very similar to traditional DVDs, it would require much less investment to change over to HD DVD production.

What HD DVD lacked was a strong leader heading up the consortium of organizations supporting the format. Sony, on the other hand, is an empire unto itself: different divisions produced not only hardware, but the content that would play on that hardware as well. Sony Pictures was never going to defect to HD DVD.

But Sony has experience at losing format wars. Its Beta videocassette was widely considered technically superior to VHS, but it was too expensive and didnít get studio backing. Sony also presented the digital camera world with the Memory Stick, which does just fine in Sony cameras, but it offered nothing that already available formats didnít. And what should have been Sonyís lynchpin in the current war, the Playstation 3 with a built-in Blu-ray drive, failed to fly off the shelves because of its high price compared to the Nintendo Wii, released at the same time.

Now that Playstation 3 prices have started to fall, studios might be seeing Blu-ray as the inevitable candidate with the backing of Sonyís marketing might. Itís tempting to project a winner, but thereís still plenty of time left in the fight.

In the meantime, plain olí DVDs are wicked cheap. Awesome.