Members of the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD industry groups should compromise on one new hybrid format for next-generation DVDs. What's more, they should provide a simple way to share the high-quality content on those disks in secure, responsible ways. If they accomplish both jobs, will they unlock the full potential for next-generation digital movies and the systems that capture, transport and play them? Not incidentally, they could also set a new, positive tone for the industry in these early and still-skittish days of digital convergence.
The tasks may seem monumental, but they really are within reach. Sure, there's
plenty of hard work to be done and tough decisions to make. Business execs and the lawyers need to renegotiate their financial positions in a new and broader patent pool while writing off the costs of developing products around their existing format. Marketers must reposition their companies and reset expectations around the new merged product. And engineers will need to let go of their commitment to the features of the specs they have developed and get cracking on the hybrid designs.
There's plenty of pain to go around, but facing that pain now, rather than later, will be well worth it. The reward is a bigger pie for everyone.
If users find incompatible Blu-Ray and HD-DVD players on the shelves at Best Buy, they are likely to walk out without purchasing anything. The few die-hard technophiles that might buy into a format war won't be happy the first time they come home from Blockbuster realizing they rented the wrong version of Star Wars: Episode IV.
You don't have to look far to see the difference between markets based on a single format and those built on a split one. To see the lesson writ large, compare the racks and racks of DVD titles and players in any store with the tiny corner devoted to fragmented DVD-audio products.
But a unified format is just half the story. The other half is all about moving the ball forward in digital rights. Eight companies have drafted a spec for secure, legitimate sharing of digital movies as part of the Advanced Access Content System. Their work may not be perfect, but it is a giant and hard-won step ahead of where things are today. AACS creates a mechanism through which forward-thinking content providers can securely sell rights to download a high-quality digital movie from the Web, burn it to a disk or put it on a home network for playback on the user's other home or portable systems.
This would be a huge enabler for home networking, portable media players and more. If the two DVD camps adopt a unified format using this sort of technology, tomorrow's digital video products could enjoy the kind of boom now seen in digital music, exemplified by Apple's iPod. If they fail, they will drive an increasingly sophisticated class of frustrated users into the hands of Bit Torrent and other sources of free content.
This industry is just at the start of a long and difficult journey in digital media. There's plenty of fear and paranoia about the potholes ahead. A courageous step forward in DVD and digital movies could set the direction for an industry hungry for leadership.
By Rick Merritt, editor at-large for EE Times