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The High Definition Video War Part 1 January 29, 2012

Posted by Maniac in HD Format War, Histories.
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Are you guys ready for another history story?  Back in 2005, the world was itching to bring High Definition TV into the mainstream.  While PCs had enjoyed HD content for years prior, it was finally being adopted into the home theater market.  The problem was DVD was not a sufficient technology for HD video and the movie studios knew it.  With the choice to use a red laser in DVD players, there was not enough bandwidth to support high-definition playback.

While HD televisions were finally being sold to the mass markets, the install base was still quite low, in 2006 only about 20% of homes had a HDTV in their house, and very few of them had any content to use for it.  Not all of the next generation consoles had even been released yet.  The time had come for the successor to DVD to be released, a new video format capable of displaying movies in high-definition video and audio, and show HDTV owners the full potential of their new TVs.

The problem was that like with any large group, the manufacturers couldn’t agree on how they wanted to go about making this new format and who would be the ones to make the standard.

Sony had a product in mind to meet this demand.  They had a new optical disc format with storage capacity of around fifty gigs.  Dubbed Blu-Ray Disc (BD for short) for the blue laser the player would read the disc with, Sony believed that the extra storage capacity of the discs would do well for containing large series, loads of special features, and completely uncompressed surround sound audio tracks.  The problem with it was that it was so dissimilar to what was currently on the market, new facilities would have to be built to mass produce them.

Toshiba had their own ideas.  They had a disc format of their own in mind that, while it did not have nearly as much of a storage capacity as Blu-Ray did, had a full list of technical features and software ready to go for it that Sony didn’t.  At launch, their format would be able to support picture-in-picture commentary, as well as allow any users with internet access the ability to download new content to their players.  Toshiba called the format HD-DVD and unlike Blu-Ray it could be mass produced using currently existing facilities.

Each side believed they had the superior product, but everyone knew that there was a major elephant in the room.  Sony was also producing their next generation console alongside their new high-definition format.  The Playstation 3 was the third in Sony’s highly successful gaming division, which had twice prior won the gaming wars by a landslide.  The decision to include DVD playback in the PS2 at launch had been an enormous success for the initial sales of the PS2, as they sold it as not just a gaming platform but an entertainment device, and Sony was banking that the choice to include a Blu-Ray player inside of the PS3 would be just as big an advantage to them as it had been in the previous generation.  None of the other consoles would support Blu-Ray out of the box, but there was some musings that Microsoft may include an adapter to allow HD-DVD playback on the Xbox 360 after the 360’s launch.

The sides were chosen.  Universal Studios would be an HD-DVD exclusive provider.  20th Century Fox and Disney both decided to join Sony Pictures and exclusively support Blu-Ray Disc.  However, not all the studios were willing to choose a side in this fight just yet.  Paramount and Warner Bros, who probably had the biggest studio catalog of all the studios, would remain neutral and support both platforms.

However, completely independent of whoever was going to win or lose this format war, the true loser of it was going to be the home consumer.  With an only twenty percent install base to go for, both Sony and Toshiba were going for a small portion of a niche market, which was probably one of the worst business decisions anyone could make.  It also would mean that with studios exclusive to certain platforms, there were going to be movies released that would not see a release on the alternate format.  If a consumer chose to buy a Blu-Ray player, they would be forced to buy the DVD of anything released exclusive to the alternate format.  They also knew that whoever would end up buying the eventual losing format would be forced to buy the winning format after the fact, and possibly rebuy their movie collection.

There were rumors of an 11th hour meeting of the minds to stop the format war before it started, but it fell through.  The war, it seemed, would be decided by the consumers.

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