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I am no longer posting on this blog. I have a new political blog called The Burning Itch, which is updated regularly.

January 12, 2007

Format War with No Winners

Lately I've seen a lot of people in Digg arguing about whether Blu-ray or HD DVD will win the current format war and most of them are either bashing Sony about Blu-ray or bashing the Sony bashers. It's a vicious cycle. The problem with these arguments (other than a lot of personal attacks), is that neither format will win this war.

If you have not heard about the format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD, then you probably are not into technology all that much. But in any case, there is a format war going on for supremacy of the next generation multimedia medium. Blu-ray is technically superior, but costs a bit more to make. Neither format is inexpensive at this point and the main reason to get a standalone player for these formats is if you want to watch video in high definition (both are currently encoded in 1080p, the highest definition in present commercial TVs). Blu-ray can hold quite a bit more data than HD DVD and comes standard on a PlayStation 3. Microsoft released an HD DVD attachment for the Xbox 360 late last year as well.

Both formats are going head to head with each other, but my prediction is that neither will win. Friends of mine often talk about the format war while not understanding what's actually behind it all. The assumption many have is that there has to be a winner in a format war. This is just not true. Many formats that seem superior to others in the past have failed to become adopted (can you say laser disc, MiniDisc, Betamax). The truth of the matter is that there really is not a relatively high demand for either of these formats.

Back when VHS's ruled the world there was this thing that came out called a DVD. It supported a huge technical advantage over VHS and was eventually adopted as the current standard format for video and many other applications. We didn't just change formats for video, we changed the entire medium. There was a relatively large plastic box with magnetic tape in it and then there was a small disc that held much more data, easy tracking, no need to rewind, and enough space to now put movie "extras" in with the movie. Now we have the choice of going from a small to disc to another small disc that basically only increases the resolution of the video and room for more extras. The only real reason to change to this new format is if we want to see movies in HD on our new shiny HDTVs. The only problem is that just about everybody has a regular DVD player and those who don't can get one for very cheap. This along with the price of the DVD being about half of a Blu-ray or HD DVD makes a very bad case for buying one of these new format players.

Consumers don't like format wars. It confuses them and so most will wait until just one remains standing. Of course, Warner Bros. recently developed a disc that will store both Blu-ray and HD DVD formats on it at the same time. Unfortunately, unless this is heavily marketed, the majority of people will still think there is a format war going and will be hesitant to decide on a format. The biggest chance this generation of media has of succeeding is if the PS3 begins selling like hotcakes around the world. This is what happened with the PS2, which helped the DVD get adopted much faster, along with the fact that there were not real competitors to the DVD format.

So with all of these factors, my prediction is that these formats at best will get a lukewarm adoption in the world, as they have so far. Most likely what will happen is the actual medium will change eventually, just as when we went from VHS to DVD. The next step in the media evolution seems to be solid-state memory. Flash drives have been exponential decreasing in price and companies like IBM and SanDisk have found new ways to create high density solid-state drives. By the time Blu-ray or HD DVD has the chance to become well adopted there may be a new format dangling in people's faces.

Of course, I could be wrong about this format war as I have been wrong about things like this is the past. I once predicted that MiniDiscs would take over the CD format, but I was obviously proved wrong and that is what partly leads me to my conclusions this time through. The MiniDisc was technically superior to CDs in many ways, but there was already a high adoption rate for CDs and MiniDiscs and their players were generally more expensive.

So you won't be seeing me watching at Blu-ray or HD DVD any time soon. The lower resolution DVD format still looks fine, even on my beautiful HDTV. Once you're immersed into a movie, your eyes will not really care if the video is in 480p or 1080p, they're busy enjoying everything else about it.

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