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The High Definition Video War Part 2 January 30, 2012

Posted by Maniac in HD Format War, Histories.
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HD-DVD released first and being first to market helped them quite a bit. Armed with an initial selection of high-definition movies from exclusive and non exclusive studios gave HD an impressive catalog of movies very quickly. A brand new HD-DVD player would cost the consumer about $500US at release, with models supporting higher resolutions and wider features costing more. The HDTV owning public was eager to finally have some native content to show off their new TVs and they bought them right up.

Blu-Ray launched towards the end of 2006 near the release of the Playstation 3. I would like to say that they had just as strong a launch as HD-DVD did, but they didn’t. The initial launch price of a standalone Blu-Ray Disc player was around $1000US, and the alternative to buy a brand new Playstation 3, which had full Blu-Ray support, was much cheaper, but not when compared to the price of a Nintendo Wii or Xbox 360. Sony was also bringing out their catalog of recent movies from their Studios, the majority of which were critical bombs that no one was interested in seeing, let alone seeing in HD. Warner Bros also held back the release of several movies they had initially released for HD-DVD, since they made use of features that the launch version of Blu-Ray could not make use of, like Picture-in-Picture commentary, and instead chose to hold back the release of those movies until Blu-Ray came up to HD-DVD’s specifications.

That update for the Blu-Ray players would come indeed, but it would not make a lot of early Blu-Ray adopters happy. When Sony announced that they were working on Profile 1.1, the first major Blu-Ray system update, it was clear that there were going to be plenty of currently existing standalone players that would not be able to meet this specification. The hardware requirements for a second video stream that was essential for picture-in-picture playback was not part of the initial BD specification (it was a requirement of HD-DVD however) and as such, even with a firmware update, there would be plenty of players that would not be able to make use of the feature. The Playstation 3, however, would have no problem meeting this specification.

Around the time that the Playstation 3 launched, Microsoft released an HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360. Using the Xbox 360’s processor to do all the work, the HD-DVD drive would connect externally to the 360 using the rear USB port. It also had a USB hub in the rear for extra peripherals that were used by the Xbox 360’s rear USB, like the Xbox Live Vision Camera and WiFi Adapter. Priced at $200US and designed to be a cheaper alternative to buying a standalone HD-DVD player for people who already had a 360, the external drive sold quite well and increased the HD-DVD’s user base. It also had 256MB of internal flash memory to meet the format’s specifications for any downloadable content, and the ability to automatically update it’s firmware through Xbox Live.

Then there was an interesting little development. The porn industry threw their entire weight behind the HD-DVD format. This may seem like a minor sidebar for hilarity’s sake, but in reality this was taken with a lot of seriousness. The porn industry claimed that HD-DVD was the better format to work with, and as with Betamax, Sony was not all that receptive to having Blu-Ray porn. The truthfulness of this statement could be taken with a grain of salt, but it was certainly true during the VHS/Beta war years prior, and many have credited the porn industry’s support of VHS to be the sole reason why the format was a success over Beta.

Then there was another development that put the format war into a heavy stalemate. As Blu-Ray was picking up steam, Paramount Pictures announced that they would become an HD-DVD exclusive studio, adding to the ranks of Universal. Paramount had a pretty extensive movie collection out on Blu-Ray already, but it had been clear that because of the improved software of HD-DVD, some discs, in particular Mission: Impossible III, were superior on HD-DVD than their Blu-Ray counterpart. This also meant that a movie they had already manufactured and shipped to retailers, Blades of Glory, would have its Blu-Ray version pulled from shelves before release.

This put the format war into a stalemate through the 2007 holidays. Both Sony and Toshiba offered promotions to get customers during the holiday season, ranging from offering free movies through rebate incentives (which the Playstation 3 was also a part of) to temporary price cuts for new standalone players.

Then Blu-Ray dropped a devastating blow to HD-DVD that they could not recover from. Warner Bros announced they would become Blu-Ray Disc exclusive. Why did WB cross? Well, quite simply, they looked at the movies they had released for both platforms and said they clearly sold more Blu-Ray Disc versions of their movies than HD-DVD versions. Paramount had it in their contract that their HD-DVD exclusive status would be conditional that Warner Bros did not become Blu-Ray exclusive, as they knew that Warner Bros’s weight alone would turn the tide of the war and they did not want to find themselves exclusive to the eventual losing format for longer than they needed to be.

With the release of Profile 2.0 (BD Live), Blu-Ray players could finally meet the specifications that HD-DVD had since launch. It was now mandated that all Blu-Ray players would allow internet access from their discs and ship with 1GB of storage space for any downloaded content. While once again the Playstation 3 would have no problem meeting this specification, the current wave of standalone Blu-Ray players could not meet this hardware specification.

Toshiba put all their final efforts into one last commercial (which ironically wasn’t even in high-definition) to air during the Super Bowl, but it was too late. The format was running on fumes and they were fizzing out. Shortly after the Super Bowl, Toshiba called it quits with the HD-DVD format. Blu-Ray Disc had won the HD format war.

So how did HD-DVD, with its fantastic launch and superior software lose to Sony with their initially disappointing exclusive lineup, required hardware upgrades, and more expensive hardware? Well, it all came down to the elephant in the room. Sony was right in assuming that having Blu-Ray hardware inside the Playstation 3 would bring them the edge in the hardware install base. When Warner Bros looked at their sales figures for each of the platforms, they could see that the Blu-Ray versions of their movies were selling better, in my opinion this is probably because anyone with a Playstation 3, since they had the player already, was probably purchasing Blu-Ray versions of newer movies over DVD counterpart. The Playstation 3 integration, plus the install base from standalone players, gave Sony the sales edge in multiplatform movies. It also seemed that with the majority of early Blu-Ray adopters choosing the PS3 as their player of choice, the blowback from the hardware upgrade requirements with the new profile specifications was minor.

With the release of Profile 2.0 (BD-Live) Sony has brought Blu-Ray Disc to the software capabilities HD-DVD launched with. Warner Bros would use that to re-release previously exclusive HD-DVD movies which took advantage of the platform’s software capabilities, like Constantine, Batman Begins, and The Matrix Trilogy. Now, with 3D support, the Playstation 3 continues to support every major hardware update Sony has brought to Blu-Ray (internet connected firmware update required), and BD Live players have become as common and inexpensive as the DVD players they intend to replace.

So if you happen to be in a secondhand movies retailer and see a new movie in a red box and wonder, “Gosh, what’s HD-DVD?” now you know. Now put it back on the shelf.

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.