LAS VEGAS Like Barack Obama, Blu-ray drives have won a historic battle. And like the President-elect, the proponents of the technology are finding some of the fruits of that victory are, well, a little less than sweet.
There's no doubt Blu-ray drives are headed into the mainstream as the de facto package for high def content. At last year's Consumer Electronics Show the competing HD-DVD technology promoted by Toshiba was dealt a fatal blow when Warner Brothers said it would not back the format. But it took until mid-February before Toshiba conceded defeat.
So this year, it's Blu-ray all the way from all the top consumer companies, but it's a heck of a time to win that distinction. This year the HDTV train on which Blu-ray rides is slated to slow down as much as 16 percent thanks to an economy one Washington politician recently characterized as in the "death spiral."
OEMs are creating all the right variations on the Blu-ray technology theme. Sharp will release the first all-in-one TVs with built-in Blu-ray drives this year. Panasonic announced the first portable Blu-ray models. And everyone is rolling out units supporting the so-called bonus features such as managed copies and Blu-ray Live Web links that have been waiting in the wings so long.
Silicon is also in place to pave the road to the mainstream. Big OEMs such as Panasonic, Sharp and others have their own integrated Blu-ray chips and components to drive prices down and merchant chip companies including Taiwan's Mediatek have options for the rest of the world.
The industry is understandably bullish on Blu-ray.
"Blu-ray is doing very well thank you and is ahead of what DVD was doing during the same place in its lifetime," said Paul Liao, chief technology officer for Panasonic North America in a talk at CES here.
The Consumer Electronics Association projects sales of $1.3 billion in 2009, overtaking DVD which it forecasts at $1.2 billion. But those projections are sunny and mask the fact that because of Blu-ray's price premium there will still be many, many more DVD than Blu-ray units shipped this year.
The best Blu-ray prices I have heard so far were $279 for standalone players and $1,099 for integrated TV/Blu-ray units. That's a far cry from what EE Times Editor in Chief Junko Yoshida sees as the $199 magic price at which consumer devices start flying off the shelves.
So, what should be a glory lap in 2009 for Blu-ray will turn into more of a hard slog. The road ahead ain't exactly a bed of roses either.
Panasonic is already calling for a quick transition to 3DTV with a standard in 2009 and products in 2010. That would mean re-spinning the Blu-ray chips to support the multi-view coding version of H.264 compression and updating the firmware to handle things like graphics and subtitles over stereo 3-D video.
But even Panasonic knows that's pretty optimistic. The industry is still fragmented over the kind of format, display technology and glasses (if any) it wants for stereo 3-D. And my colleague David Benjamin pointed out that the 3-D content still leaves something to be desired.
So, expect 2010 to be the first year companies try to reap some substantial profits on today's Blu-ray while they hold off a move to Blu-ray 2.0: The 3-D Experience until at least 2011. After all, people who have had a round of bad luck, tend to be cautious. You hear about that sort of thing here in Vegas.