HD DVD vs. Blu-ray ad nauseam

The battle between the HD DVD and Blu-ray formats is the battle that simply doesn't want to end. Many, however, think that this Christmas season could be critical, a Gettysburg-style confrontation that won't by itself knock either format permanently out of the race, but could start a "rolling downhill" effect that could lead inexorably to the triumph of one or the other.

The battle between the HD DVD and Blu-ray formats is the battle that simply doesn't want to end. Many, however, think that this Christmas season could be critical, a Gettysburg-style confrontation that won't by itself knock either format permanently out of the race, but could start a "rolling downhill" effect that could lead inexorably to the triumph of one or the other.

The HD DVD forum is crowing about current generation HD DVD players that are available for under $200.00. That, historically, is the magic price point which is supposed to push a format over the top, as $200.00 is low enough to be a relatively painless expense. On the back of that low price, the forum announced that they have sold 750,000 standalone players and are well on their way to 1 million, which, again, is one of those magic numbers that is supposed to create a groundswell of support for the format (1 million customers is hard to ignore, as betanews explains).  The fact that the HD DVD "attach rate" (which represents the number of movies purchased per player) is 4 versus a rather paltry 0.6 for Blu-ray should have a nice multiplier effect, accelerating sales at a faster rate than Blu-ray with every player sold.

Acceleration is key, because however many ways you slice it, in terms of number of players in consumer hands, Blu-ray takes the lead on account of the inclusion of a Blu-ray player in the PS3. Irrespective of that console's third place status as a game console (which likely explains the low attach rate, as most don't buy a PS3 for the Blu-ray player), enough have been sold to make a difference given the low numbers of HD discs sold. Sony recently announced that Blu-ray was outselling HD DVD by a 3-to-1 margin in Europe, which is a reversal of previous trends. That shift, of course, is entirely due to the fact that the PS3 was released recently in Europe.

The PS3 accounts for over 95% of all Blu-ray playback devices, which means Blu-ray's fortunes are tightly linked with the success of the PS3 as a game console. That was more of a problem before Sony's price cut, but things are now looking better for the console. Though it might not be enough to enable Sony to make up for lost ground with its PlayStation franchise, it might make a difference in the "sickly" market for HD disc content. As betanews pointed out, a large fraction of the total number of sales of BOTH HD disc formats is dwarfed in a few hours by standard DVD sales for a hot title like Transformers.

When will it end? Partisans of both sides are fighting it out in technology talkback forums across the Internet, but the reality is that its very hard to get consumers very excited about HD disc formats. My father can be considered a technology afficianado. He bought his first VCR, a bulky creature with old-fashioned tape-cassette-style push buttons, for $1200.00 in 1978 (he chose, lucky for him, VHS). He bought a satellite dish in 1982 or 1983, one of those big "speak to martians" monstrosities that, back then, received everything for free, as content companies didn't encrypt their content yet. At one point, he owned three different DVRs (the better to experiment, I guess), and he also owns an HD TV.

He isn't too keen about running out to buy an HD DVD player (Blu-ray or otherwise). Part of the problem is the size of his DVD library, which at last count, was above 1600 titles. Another is the quality of the upscaling in modern DVD players. We compared an HD broadcast signal for a sporting event (which was 720i, I believe) to one of his DVDs played back through his high-end standard DVD player, and I would be hard pressed to point out the quality differences.

Granted, this wasn't pushing the HD envelope. Modern HD TVs support 1080p, and HD discs top out at that resolution as well. From what I've read, however, you need a quite large HD screen to see the difference between 720p and 1080p, certainly well above the 37" screen my father has in his living room (which is a perfect size for his viewing area, as larger would start to feel like sitting on the front row of a movie theater).

In other words, it's a hard sell to convince people to buy the new HD disc format, because in most cases, the quality different is hard to perceive...even if you have an HD TV (which most don't). Granted, that's where marketing hype comes in, riding the waves of consumer ignorance to create profit from a product for which many would be hard pressed to see a need (where would profits be without imperfect information), but that can only go so far, and consumers DO have huge standard DVD libraries.

That's why I found it interesting that the HD DVD release of Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix will include a new "community screening" feature that enables multiple households to watch a movie simultaneously. One household will serve as the controller, and all the other players will synchronize with it. This takes advantage of the fact that HD DVD players REQUIRE Ethernet ports, something that is not the case with Blu-ray players.

That feature might seem unnecessary to some, but it represent a move in the right direction from a competitive standpoint. If you want consumers to embrace the HD disc experience, you need to give them something more than what they can get from standard definition. As I've noted, the marginal improvement in resolution isn't sufficient by itself, as demonstrated by a format battle that still rages long after many experts estimated it would be resolved.

Instead, take advantage of the features that your format offers over predecessors, and harp on that in ad campaigns. The history of software sales shows that "doing more" is usually a good selling point. That principle applies equally to video playback hardware.

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