HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray, round 2

Responses to comments made by Alan Parsons, senior vice president of Pioneer Electronics (USA) and proponent of Blu-Ray, in response to a recent post promoting the merits of the HD-DVD format.

The Friday before last, the day before my vacation on Lake Michigan had officially begun, I chatted over the phone with Andy Parsons, senior vice president of Pioneer Electronics (USA) and a clear proponent of the Blu-Ray standard. He had read my previous post on the subject of Blu-Ray, where I pointed out some advantages HD-DVD had over the current generation Blu-Ray ecosystem, and he thought it worth giving me the other side of the story.

Unfortunately, I don't own a phone recording device, and besides, I was on my cell phone. I did take notes, however. The following were some of the key points he made during the interview.

First, cost. I assigned a fair bit of importance to the cost diferences between current generation HD-DVD players and Blu-Ray players. Toshiba's lower-end offering comes in at around $500, and Samsung's offering comes in around $1,000. To a market accustomed to sub-$100 DVD players, I think that price difference matters.

Parsons pointed me to a breakdown conducted by iSuppli which shows that the Toshiba player costs far more to build than the sale price, with costs estimates ranging as high as $700. This is largely due to the use of more expensive components more typically found in PCs.

Fair enough. Perhaps Toshiba is making a tactical decision on hopes that it will help them to win the the HD-DVD / Blu-Ray wars and thus turn a loss into a gain down the road. Even so, this still doesn't explain why the Samsung player is still $300 above the Toshiba price even as it lacks features found in the lower-end Toshiba model. Likewise, two can play the cost cutting game. There isn't a comparable analysis of the actual price of the Samsung device, but I expect that it sports some of the same design inefficiencies as Toshiba's offering due to its status as a first generation player. Furthermore, Pioneer's own soon-to-be-released offering, the Elite BDP-HD1 targeted at high-end users, was recently lowered from $1800 to $1500. Is this sign of the willingness among companies to take losses in order to get their chosen standard over the top?

Regarding the decision to use MPEG-2 in early Blu-Ray titles versus newer compression standards such as H.264 or VC-1 (both of which are supported in Blu-Ray players), Parsons explained that this was to enable a real-time encode process. Most content studios are very familiar with MPEG-2, and had a pipeline oriented around the technology. Usage of MPEG-2 would, theoretically, accelerate the release of new titles, as MPEG-2 encoding is a well understood proces.

Interesting point, but as of today, there are more HD-DVD titles than Blu-Ray titles. Likewise, the early HD-DVD titles seem to have more mass appeal than the early Blu-Ray titles. Constantine and Bourne Identity (HD-DVD) vs. 5th Element and Basic Instinct 2 (Blu-Ray). Okay, I'm not being completely fair here, and besides, if Fox holds fast to its exclusive commitment to Blu-Ray, a few years down the road we're going to see a Blu-Ray Star Wars release.

Besides, I'm not sure how much value a real-time encode process has. Taking a bit of extra time to encode something that is going to get stamped on a disc about a million times seems like a decent trade-off. Furthermore, encode times will only accelerate as more experience is gained in these newer technologies. I don't think studios want to spend the next 10 years on bandwidth-hogging MPEG-2 (which also annuls the throughput advantages of Blu-Ray drives, as you get less quality at a given bitrate level). I think this is more of a legacy of a Sony that resisted inclusion of newer compression codecs until relatively late in the Blu-Ray standardization process. Basically, falling back on older technologies that erase many of the advantages of your format (capacity, throughput) seems a strange way to compete with a format that has a smaller nominal storage size per layer.

Other issues we discussed were dual-layer Blu-Ray discs and "hybrid" discs. Hybrid discs are discs that have a version playable in older DVD players, so you can buy your HD discs that works on your existing technology today and start using the HD version once you upgrade your home theater system. On the first point, Parsons assured me that the dual layer problems with Blu-Ray are resolved, and further, HD-DVD will have a hard time matching the new bar as triple-layer discs will be extremely hard for them to do. Second, Blu-Ray DOES have a hybrid answer, one that uses the fact that normal Blu-Ray discs are read through a much shallower coating layer to store the standard definition on a lower layer and "focus" through the top layer to it. This means the two formats could be stored on the same side of a DVD.

I can't confirm the veracity of either of these things. Andy invited me over to Pioneer labs in Los Angeles, so I hope to see instances of both technologies when I do that. These things DO, however, seem more technically complicated than would be the case in an HD-DVD world, particularly the hybrid solution. So, even if it's possible, would the hardware ever be as cheap to make as a system that deals with content at the same depth and pitch size at all times?

The last point I considered relatively important was content development simplicity. I noted that, as a programmer, there are reasons why the web is mostly HTML, XML and Javascript. That's an easier development technology than compiled languages such as Java. Though Java is certainly a powerful language, for 99.9% of web development tasks, it's like smashing an ant with a steamroller.

Parsons' response was that end users could care less about how something is done, just so that it is done well. Besides, easier to use content development tools would come that assemble pre-packaged Java components.

I concede all this, but that doesn't change the fact that ease of development often leads to MORE use of complex functionality simply because the environment makes it much easier to use that technology. It's like the difference between writing your own HTML parser versus using an existing component that does it for you. It's worth noting that BD-J has an estimated 8000 methods / interfaces, versus iHD's 400.

Furthermore, the iHD environment has secured for itself a lot more cross-player consistency than BD-J, a fact made apparent to me in an audio interview with Amir Majidimehr and Kevin Collins, two high-level people with Microsoft's Digital Media Division, that I discovered recently on the Internet (okay, I found it while ego-surfing on technorati).

First, persistent storage is mandatory on HD-DVD players. This is useful for the creation of bookmarks (custom markers that persist across DVD playback), but is obviously useful for much more. Second, a second video decoder is mandatory on HD-DVD players. This enables the playback of dual video streams, for instance, as part of an enhanced director's commentary that appears as a PIP (picture in picture) in the corner of a screen, or as a way to show how a particularly complicated stunt was performed alongside the playback of the main video.

Third, network connections are mandatory on HD-DVDs. Kevin Collins noted that this creates the ability to download custom previews for existing movies, a vast improvement over the current situation wherein one is forced to watch the same old previews over and over again. Such previews could even become time-specific, such as more horror-oriented previews around Halloween. One thing not mentioned, however, is the opportunity for context sensitive linking, or even online purchases. Marketers would have a field day if they could sell products found in a movie with the click of a button.

All of these things are POSSIBLE with Blu-Ray, but aren't MANDATORY...much as the ability to offload content from an HD-DVD disc to a media server is possible in Blu-Ray, but MANDATORY in HD-DVD. The advantage of mandatory is that content UI creators can assume the presence of these features, and take advantage of them. Creators of content in a Blu-Ray device may be less inclined to take advantage of features which may not exist across all players.

Just to reiterate a point I noted at the end of my last HD DVD post (and something I noted several times to Andy Parsons), the battle between the two formats is far from over.  I don't expect folks in the Blu-Ray camp just to sit still in response to early setbacks. Even so, I still lean towards the practical advantages of the HD-DVD format. Whether the market agrees with me is another question entirely.


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