Wednesday, February 20, 2008

HD DVD is Dead...Now What?

Two days ago, Toshiba announced that it has abandoned HD DVD, with player production and all marketing activities to end in March. Yesterday, Universal Home Video announced that it would discontinue HD DVD production and shift to Blu-Ray. Paramount and DreamWorks, the remaining HD DVD-only studios, haven't yet made an announcement, but one is expected soon. (UPDATE 02/21/08: Paramount and DreamWorks have officially announced that they've dropped HD DVD in favor of Blu-Ray.) Thus, we finally have a single high-definition blue laser optical disc standard. The question is, does it really matter?

Video Business and Adams Media Research recently reported that the adoption curve for the first two years of HD disc sales ran significantly below that of DVD sales; 8.3 million HD discs vs. 16.3 milion DVDs. Now, there are a number of reasons why the growth of DVD sales was much faster than that of HD discs:
  • DVDs were clearly superior to VHS cassettes, while HD discs are far less of an improvement over DVDs.
  • HD discs are of value only to those consumers who already have a HD television set, of which only 26.5 million households in the US (out of 111 million total, according to Nielsen) have at least one.
  • Many consumers can't tell the difference between movies on HD discs and DVDs.
  • The format wars caused many consumers to delay purchasing either format until a winner arose.
Now that Blu-Ray is the winner, consumers don't have to choose between formats, but there's still the issue of the evolving Blu-Ray standard. In order to get the interactive features of BD Live (Internet connectivity, games, forums, etc.), Blu-Ray players have to conform to Profile 2.0 or greater. Unfortunately, the only player on the market right now that can meet Profile 2.0 is the Playstation 3, and even it will require a firmware update later this year in order to get BD Live functionality. So, smart consumers won't rush right out and buy a Blu-Ray player, unless they're already buying a Playstation 3.

The biggest issue, however, is whether electronic distribution will make Blu-Ray obsolete before it has a chance to take hold. As a Comcast subscriber, I can already see some VOD movies in HD; I can also rent HD movies on my Apple TV. As I write this, a partnership between Microsoft and Netflix is being rumored; this will get Netflix's streaming catalog, including some HD titles, onto Xbox 360s. If I can rent a movie electronically for a few dollars (and even see it at the same time that it's in theaters, as I did with "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" last weekend on Comcast,) why do I need to buy or rent it on physical media?

If the Blu-Ray and HD DVD contingents had settled their quarrel two years ago, before either of them came out, the unified standard would have had two years to establish itself in the market. Today, I honestly can't recommend that anyone buy a Blu-Ray player unless they're buying it for some other reason (such as playing games on the PS3,) and thus will get the Blu-Ray capability "for free."
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