Microsoft and the HD DVD format wars

Microsoft and Intel recently backed HD-DVD over Blu-Ray for next generation DVDs. This could be a wise bet, given the format's cost and compatibility benefits which could lead to its success in the marketplace.

Intel and Microsoft have officially come out of the "agnostic" camp and backed HD-DVD, one of two formats vying to become the standard for next-generation DVDs. The need for a new standard is apparent. People are buying High-Definition television sets, and as should be immediately obvious to anyone who has seen the same video displayed side by side in standard-definition and high-definition format, high-definition looks MUCH better. In fact, it's on par with the clarity of traditional film, and seems likely to become the format that unifies the world of TVs with the world of cinema-grade video.

This is the battle between Betamax and VHS, but with better looking artillary. Betamax was technically better than VHS. The same can be said of Blu-Ray. Both formats read their data using a 405nm wavelength blue-violet laser. Blu-Ray, however, stores approximately 25GB of data on a single-layer disk, while HD-DVD stores 15GB (note: someone recently pointed out that Blu-Ray dual-layer discs don't currently exist, while HD-DVD dual-layer discs do, which makes HD-DVD, at 30GB on a dual-layer disc, the current size leader).

The difference is due to technical details associated with the way Blu-Ray stores data. Blu-Ray has a tighter track pitch (think grooves on a vinyl record), which means more data can be stored on the same disc. To support this pitch, Blu-Ray disks require a thinner coating over the tracks (the clear plastic that protects the disc from scratches) in order to enable the blue laser to focus on that tighter track pitch.

So, if Blu-Ray is better, why not choose the more technically-sophisticated option when given a choice? The reason is compatibility with existing hardware.

HD-DVDs use the same coating thickness (0.6mm, versus 0.1mm for Blu-Ray) as existing DVDs, which means existing production facilities can be used to make them. That's why Blu-Ray discs are so much more expensive than HD-DVD discs.

Granted, if Blu-Ray wins the day and people replace existing hardware with new Blu-Ray production facilities, costs will go down. Still, between here and there lies a mountain of money. It also hints as to why so many hardware companies back Blu-Ray. That mountain of money can make good eating for hungry hardware companies.

Besides higher costs (at least initially), Blu-Ray also brings higher risks. Current DVD technology is well tested and well understood. Blu-Ray disc technology isn't.

Consider why NASA doesn't launch space ships powered by the latest chips from Intel. NASA avoids cutting edge technology because they prefer well-tested and well-understood chips from a decade ago in devices that get blasted far beyond the reach of support technicians.

The same can be said of movie studios. Granted, Blu-Ray has a healthy line-up of studio backers, but many of those backers are hedging their bets by backing BOTH formats. HD-DVD has more exclusive backers. The reason should be obvious: if you are going to blast tens of millions of high-definition DVDs into the marketplace, you want to be darn sure you aren't going to discover in a few years that there is a critical flaw in those discs that results in lots of returned media.

To summarize, the battle between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD is the battle between "gee-whiz" and pragmatism. The battle between Betamax and VHS came down on the side of pragmatism. I'm betting something similar will happen in the battle between high-definition DVD formats, which is why I believe Microsoft chose the right horse to back.

But I would say that, as I work for Microsoft.

By the way, my apologies for slow posting over the past week and a half. Once I'm finished with my stint in purgatory paying for the sins of past lives (which will be next week), I'll return to my regularly scheduled programming.