Titanic battle over new DVD format
From Media Guardian
Titanic battle over new DVD format
It could be VHS v Betamax all over again in the next technology clash
Tuesday November 23, 2004
It is being billed as the next VHS versus Betamax, the seminal TV technology culture clash that left millions of pieces of domestic equipment obsolete almost as soon as they had been built.
This time the battle is over the next generation of DVDs. Manufacturers are preparing a high-stakes fight over high-definition television and DVDs, with much improved picture quality and bigger memories. Image definition becomes particularly important as sets become bigger and better; without better pictures, these super screens are only bigger.
The high-definition DVD rivals are Blu-ray and the imaginatively titled HD-DVD. The former is backed by Sony, JVC and Philips, with NEC and Toshiba behind the rival technology.
The electronics industry is already promoting high-definition television as the next big thing, that picture quality will become a must-have for consumers. BSkyB is planning to start broadcasting some channels in high definition, with next year believed to be the target.
"The technology is too good to ignore," says Hisashi Yamada, Toshiba vice-president and one of the masterminds behind HD-DVD.
Richard Doherty, managing director of Blu-ray, offers further hyperbole: "With the unstoppable adoption of high-definition TV, Blu-ray's high-capacity optical disc technology is essential to delivering the very best quality high-definition movie experience to the consumer. In addition to providing a revolution in video and audio quality, Blu-ray disc similarly provides a revolution in interactivity and internet connectivity, providing entertainment that goes well beyond anything ever delivered to the consumer."
Whether consumers will be convinced of the need for another new technology sold primarily on picture quality is another matter.
To receive the benefit from high definition broadcasts, consumers will clearly need to buy high-definition TVs, which are not cheap now, but will get less expensive as they become more widespread. The development of new technologies allows the electronics industry to make its money. From radio to television, from black and white to colour, from video to DVD, and now from "ordinary" TV to high definition, constant reinvention means consumers constantly need to buy new equipment. Some people, of course, stick with the same television until it breaks, but they are not going to keep far eastern electronics manufacturers in profits.
Video created a revolution in how people watched TV when it was launched in the late 1970s. For the first time, viewers in their own homes could choose when to watch a programme, rather than what the TV schedulers had chosen for them.
Then came DVD, which grabbed the public imagination (and purse) much more quickly than video. Partially this was due to the lessons learned from video's launch. Most importantly, the electronics companies elected to develop a joint standard to avoid the rivalry created by VHS versus Beta. However, despite the technological advances, those lessons appear to have been forgotten again and the propaganda war has started.
It boils down to a fight between Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Both sides agree that high definition DVD will offer outstanding picture quality through its use of blue laser technology rather than the red lasers currently used in DVDs. More importantly, the new DVD has more memory and can thus store more content. High-definition broadcasts require more storage capacity. As DVD recorders, rather than just players, become common, the ability to store more content will become more important. As a rough guide, one high-definition DVD can hold 24 movies compared with one, as at present. For the consumer, the key will be that HD-DVD discs and Blu-ray discs will be incompatible with the rival format players.
Timing is critical in a format war and the race is on to be the first to launch around the globe. Another key element is signing up key content providers. In the VHS/Beta battle, one deciding factor was which movies were available on which format. Beta lost because the best and newest were available on VHS. Representatives of both high-definition DVD consortia are said to be spending a lot of time in Hollywood wooing the studios.
Twentieth Century Fox, producer of movies such as Star Wars and Titanic, recently agreed to join the board of the Blu-ray Disc Association, although it was careful to leave its options open: Michael O'Neill, special adviser to the Fox Technology Group, said: "We are also exploring the HD format, as we have been for a year, and are going to evaluate both formats in a positive, collaborative fashion."
Sony - which backed Betamax and does not want to be beaten again - has already secured itself a powerful base in the battle for content. Its recent deal to buy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was about much more than a faded US film studio; it gave the Japanese corporation a huge library of classic movies for its chosen format. Allied to the back catalogue of Columbia Tri-Star, this gives Blu-ray a ready-made 17% share of the movie pie. With it is guaranteed first bite at choice launches through Blockbuster and the other rental outlets.
It is also a game of inches in the launch stakes. Although the prototype Blu-ray machines on view at technology fairs such as Ceatec in Japan appear cumbersome, they aim to be on sale in the US and Europe next year. HD-DVD meanwhile is aiming to launch in Japan next year and the UK in 2006, according to Keisuke Ohmori, media relations manager of Toshiba. He adds: "We do not believe they will launch Blu-ray before HD-DVD."
Both formats claim to be backwards compatible, meaning that the high-definition machines will be able to play current generation DVDs.
While the rival camps jostle for allies, content and shop space, the final result will lie in the hands of the consumer. As with VHS/Beta, the desire not to be left holding a piece of obsolete technology may make many wary of buying into the new technology, particularly as high-definition TV is still not so much a reality as a promise. And viewers are already faced with a multitude of decisions. HD-DVD/Blu-ray may remain a battle for the hearts and minds of early adopters for a while yet.
From cathode rays to DVDs
1900 The Russian Constantin Perskyi makes first known use of the word "television" at the 1st Congress of Electricity at Paris World's Fair.
1925 The Scottish inventor John Logie Baird holds first public display of television at Selfridges in London.
1930 The BBC begins regular television transmissions.
1934 Legal battle over patent for television between RCA and Philo Farnsworth, one of the men who could claim to be television's inventor. Farnsworth lost and, in later life, became disillusioned with TV. His wife, Elma, recalled: "One day, Phil was at home, and he noticed that Kent [their son] had been watching television for a couple of hours. He turned it off and said, 'There is not going to be any TV-itis in our house.' That was the word he used for couch potato."
1940 Peter Goldmark invents a 343-line resolution colour television.
1948 Cable television introduced in Pennsylvania to bring television to rural areas in the US.
1956 Robert Adler invents the first practical remote control - the Zenith Space Commander.
1962 AT&T launches Telstar, the first satellite to carry television broadcasts.
1976 Sony introduces Betamax, the first home video cassette recorder.
1977 JVC releases the VHS format.
1982 Sony and Philips throw in the Betamax towel.
1984 LaserDisc launched, but stumbles on high cost of films on disc and players.
1994 Sony and Philips announce plan to develop successor to the VHS tape. Time-Warner and Toshiba say they too are working on a follow-up. Computer manufacturers, including Apple and IBM, say they don't want to adapt their computers for two different formats. All four developers decide on a uniform standard.
1998 Launch of DVD player.
2002 Sales of DVD players overtake those of VHS recorders. Some 100m video recorders have been sold in Britain while 3m DVD players have been sold.
2004 Dixons announces it will no longer sell video recorders.