Last time in Format War 101, I talked about the exceptional video and audio Blu Ray and HD DVD both offer. In addition, I covered interactive features that the new formats make possible. Lastly, I discussed features like copyright protection and digital rights management (DRM), features that are very attractive to publishers.
This time in Format War 201, we'll do a brief history of the two formats, and look at the relationships the two sides have forged with content providers.
DVD had only been embraced by the mass market for a short time when consumer electronics manufacturers Sony and Toshiba started developing technology that would replace the new standard. The DVD Forum (initially called the DVD Consortium) was established in 1995 with the intention of defining DVD specifications. The body also is responsible for promotion of the format, as well as licensing. The initial ten founders of the DVD Forum consist of Matsushita, Philips, Hitachi, Thomson (RCA), Time Warner, Sony, Pioneer, JVC, Mitsubishi and Toshiba, who chairs the forum. Today, the forum boasts over 200 members.
In February 2002, Sony announced it's new Blu Ray Disc. In August of 2002, Toshiba and NEC submitted AOD (Advanced Optical Disc, which later evolved into HD DVD) to the DVD Forum. In November 2003 the DVD Forum ratified HD DVD as the replacement format for DVD. Ironically, Blu Ray was never submitted to the DVD Forum for consideration.
Sony already had Philips, Pioneer, Hitachi, Matsushita, Sharp, LG, Thomson and Samsung onboard with their Blu Ray technology, and wasn't phased by the DVD Forum's support of HD DVD. So the foundation of the format war was laid. Two very similar formats, one with the backing of the DVD Forum, and one with the backing of the consumer electronics manufacturers both went forward.
Early on, the movie studios chose sides. Sony of course owns Sony Pictures, Columbia, Tri Star and Screen Gems, so right off the bat Blu Ray enjoyed exclusive support from these studios. Additionally, Disney, Buena Vista, Fox, MGM, and Lionsgate publish their content exclusively on Blu Ray. HD DVD has Universal in their corner, and Weinstein (formerly Miramax). The announcement that sent shockwaves through the format war in August was Paramount/Dreamworks, who had supported both formats, picking HD DVD over Blu Ray and going exclusive. Warner Bros. and New Line support both formats, although Warner has favored HD DVD with exclusive releases due to HD DVD's support of interactive extra features, which Blu Ray still lacks.
On the retail front, Blu Ray has scored a couple of big alliances in the States. This last summer retailer Target announced that while they carried both Blu Ray and HD DVD movies, they would only sell Blu Ray hardware during the 2007 holiday shopping season. It has recently been observed that Target has increased shelf space for Blu Ray movies, while decreasing space allocated to HD DVD. In addition to the Target deal, Sony managed to get video rental chain Blockbuster to offer Blu Ray movies exclusively in their brick and mortar stores. At this time HD DVD has not managed to establish any retail arrangements like the ones Sony has brokered for Blu Ray.
The Chinese have jumped on the HD DVD bandwagon however, and Chinese made budget HD DVD players will be on sale this Christmas. The Chinese have chosen HD DVD as their official format, sort of. A new format, CH DVD, which is based on HD DVD but includes stronger copyright protection, has been picked by the Chinese as their next generation optical disc. CH DVD players will play HD DVD in addition to CH DVD discs, but HD DVD players will be unable to play CH DVD media.
On the personal computer front, Apple has sided with Blu Ray and Microsoft is one of the major players on the HD DVD side. Early on, Microsoft released an inexpensive HD DVD addon for their Xbox 360 videogame console. Sony of course has the Playstation 3, which contains a Blu Ray drive. In fact, one of the reasons that we are even talking about a format war was Sony's misjudging the videogame console market. Sony, who has maintained an iron grip in videogame console sales for the last two generations of hardware, was late to market with the Playstation 3, which was their tool to drive adoption of the Blu Ray Disc format. The fallout of their delays resulted in a 6 month head start for HD DVD in North America, and a full year before Microsoft's Xbox 360 had any competition. To date, the Playstation 3 has lacked significant software releases, and sales have been soft. So soft that formerly invulnerable Sony is at present relegated to third place in that market, behind Nintendo and Microsoft. I guess they found the price point that people aren't willing to reach for to own the next generation.
In the States, Toshiba has a larger installed hardware base of stand alone players. Blu Ray has a much larger number of players out there, but only if you count the Playstation 3 videogame console. The problem with knowing how to count the PS3 is that it's a game console. No one can definitively say what percentage of PS3 owners actually buy Blu Ray movies. Obviously many are, as evidenced by Blu Ray's sales lead over HD DVD. As things stand now, Blu Ray accounts for 60% of next generation disc sales year to date, and the same ratio since inception of the formats.
If you're Sony, things look rosy because you hold the majority in sales. If you're Toshiba, you've got to be pretty happy with 40% in the face of what Sony claims is a 10 to 1 disadvantage in installed hardware. HD DVD sales figures have been rising since Paramount's move. All bets are off, and everyone has an opinion.
Next time in Format War 301, I will give you some of mine and tell you where I think all this is headed.
*Originally published on 24September2007 by Connected Internet, where I write a weekly article in my capacity as AV Editor.