Despite all the new technology unveiled at the sprawling Consumer Electronics Show last month in Las Vegas, and despite the nation's planned transition to digital television that began two decades ago as a quest for high definition TV, one of the biggest stories to come out of CES was what was not there. A glaring omission on the new products front was the high definition DVD recorder. You simply can't buy a hi-def DVD recorder in the U.S. Not a single manufacturer has yet announced plans to introduce one for the U.S. market this year.
You don't need to be an engineer to understand there's no technical impediment at work here. High definition Blu-ray recorders have been on sale for home use in Japan for quite some time (last September Sony introduced six new models for sale in Japan, for example, including the flagship BDZ-X100.) Any computer geek knows that Blu-ray data drives are commonly available for making recordings using PCs, too. But the powers that be who decide which products will get sold in which market when -- the same underlying thinking, incidentally, behind "regional coding" for DVD movies -- have, at least for the time being kept Blu-ray recorders off U.S. store shelves.
Who are these powers that be? The most likely culprits are the same forces behind regional coding (DVDs only work in the region where they're sold) for standard def DVDs -- the big Hollywood studios. From their perspective, an HD version of a movie is more valuable, and deserves more protection, than a lower resolution version.
Sound like deja vu? You'll have to be of a certain age to remember, but back in the 1980s almost the exact same thing happened with the then-controversial DAT audio recording technology, which allowed people to make perfect copies of audio CDs on tape. (This was before optical disc recording became commonplace.) The music industry managed to keep DAT out of the U.S. consumer market for so long that it ultimately became a high-end pro-audio product -- all the while, DAT recorders were sold freely and relatively inexpensively to ordinary consumers in Japan.
Even standard-definition DVD recorders were quite slow to come to market, and today many homes that previously had VCR recording technology still don't have any DVD recording. By delaying the introduction of recording capability, the industry effectively got the public thinking of the DVD format as playback-only.
These delaying tactics actually seem to work. By withholding a key technology from consumers for a long enough period of time, behavior patterns become established.
Consumers in the U.S. currently have the "right" to record standard definition TV shows and movies onto recordable DVD. (Hollywood is trying hard to end this "right" too, through "broadcast flags," but that's a different story.) If consumers want to save a copy of a hi-def TV program or movie, however, they're limited to using cable-TV or satellite-TV DVR technology, in which the recording remains essentially locked up within the set top box. Hollywood likes this scheme because it prevents the HD version of the movie or TV show from ever leaving the home.
It also prevents HD camcorder owners from sending grandma a convenient HD recording of the grandkids. It prevents these camcorder owners from conveniently making a Blu-ray disc for their own archives, too.
Watching a film a few weeks ago, my eight-year old asked me what it means to be "grounded." I explained that you can't leave the house. As far as HD home video recordings are concerned, the entire U.S. public has been grounded.
The fact that the U.S. is falling technologically behind, in this case, has nothing to do with our math skills, education system or work ethic. Rather, it reflects the wishes of business titans.
The industry collusion that's behind this outrage is something the new Obama administration -- ostensibly keen on "re-regulation" -- should look into. Especially since at the heart of the matter is a development everyone seemed to be hailing at CES just one year ago -- the end of the high definition DVD format war -- granting Blu-ray what everyone in the consumer electronics industry at the time thought was vital for moving forward: a monopoly.