My colleague Seth Benton writes:
One of the 'Most Popular' articles on the EETimes homepage this week was yet another article on the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format war, HD-DVD, Blu-ray sow high-definition 'confusion'. In the article, panelists at the International Broadcast Conference complained about complications caused by having two formats, with one panelist predicting that "if the market doesn't have a one-format solution within 18 months, the consumer will start to turn away". Another panelist, the president of QOL, a French DVD manufacturer, predicted that the war will last into 2011, when according to his company's research the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD market will be split 60/40 in favor of Blu-Ray.
Recalling the many parallels that have been made to the Betamax vs. VHS war, I was curious to know how long that saga had lasted. A visit to the Betamax wikipedia entry revealed that the war effectively lasted 8 years, starting with the introduction of VHS recorders in 1976 and effectively ending in 1984 when the market shifted sharply towards VHS (although Sony continued producing Betamax recorders until 1988 when it finally admitted defeat and switched to VHS). The Blu-Ray/HD-DVD conflict, by comparison, is only a little over a year old—the first HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players were introduced in April and December of 2006, respectively.
The general consensus on why VHS won is that Betamax VCRs were more expensive and that more importantly, VHS tapes could record up to 4 hours while Betamax tapes were initially limited to 1 hour. Because customers wanted to record movies, football games (reportedly the motivation behind the 4 hour recording time), and other programs lasting longer than an hour, recording on Betamax tapes was considerably more expensive— not to mention the hassle of quickly switching out tapes mid-program. The fact that VHS achieved the 4 hour recording time by slowing down the tape, resulting in lower image quality, didn't phase consumers the way Sony was betting it would.
Looking at the capacity of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs, it appears Sony has learned its lesson with respect to recording time. Single-layer Blu-Ray discs have 25 Gbytes of storage verses 15 Gbytes for HD-DVD, which translates into (assuming H.264 or VC-1 encoded HD video), 8.5 hours for Blu-Ray and 5.1 hours for HD-DVD.
On price, Sony is still more expenive. The cheapest HD-DVD player sells for around $300 while the cheapest Blu-Ray player is roughly twice that. It is worth noting however that a recent teardown of Toshiba's cheapest HD-DVD player suggests the company is taking a loss on the player in order to gain market share.
Of course, most of the format war speculation focuses on which movie titles will be released in which format. The HD-DVD camp has exclusive deals with Universal Studios, Paramount, and DreamWorks. Blu-Ray has exclusive deals with BMG (owned by Sony), Disney, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, and of course Sony Pictures. Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema are releasing titles in both formats.
The impact of distribution deals however, could be mitigated by a factor not present during the Betamax/VHS war—the emergence of universal players capable of decoding both formats. In January LG Electronics unveiled its Super Multi Blue BH100 player capable of decoding both formats by use of a Broadcom SoC (interactive features were not supported). On April 13, 2007, Samsung Group announced their BD-UP5000 Duo HD universal player which supports interactive technologies for both the Blu-Ray (BD-Java) and HD-DVD (HDi). In addition to universal players, there will also be universal dics.
In January Time Warner unveiled its True HD discs which features 25 Gbytes of Blu-Ray on one side and HD-DVD on the other (release of the discs has been delayed until early 2008).
Universal players and discs are wasteful. Universal players cost considerably more to manufacture than single format players, and most DVD content developers are demanding much more capacity than supplied by half of a disc—not to mention the added cost to studios to master content and manufacture discs in both formats. However, advances in technology have made these alternatives economically feasible, and customers anxious not to have the shame of owning the next Betamax might very well buy in, further prolonging convergence on a single format. Ironically, the accelerating pace of technology that allows for the accelerated development of new formats and platforms also makes possible technologies that retard the development of those same formats. While the current war probably won't last as long as the Betamax/VHS war, any side declaring victory in 18 months will likely conjure images of George Bush standing on an aircraft carrier proclaiming "Mission Accomplished".