Cliché Alert-The Clock Has Stopped Ticking

The ship has sailed. The hero is riding off into the sunset as the fat lady sings her closing aria. She sees the handwriting on the wall for her final curtain. The end is near.

I wrote those words yesterday. Today, the end is here.

Early this past weekend, rumors flew that Toshiba was contemplating pulling the plug on the HD DVD format. And it's now official. Toshiba has thrown in the towel. It has announced that it will no longer promote the HD DVD format. It will no longer build new players, though it has promised to provide service support for players already in the hands of consumers. I would not, however, expect Toshiba to devote resources developing new firmware updates for existing machines.

We've watched the pressure mounting on HD DVD over the past weeks. First, Warner Brothers announced that they would no longer release discs in the format, starting in May. Then, in short order, retailers Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, and (in the U.K.) Woolworth dropped or cut back drastically on their support, Netflix and Blockbuster went mainly Blu-ray. New fire-sale, desperation prices were announced for HD DVD players. And Sonic Solutions, a major developer of mastering software for both formats, dropped its support for HD DVD as well. The Warner decision had triggered a tsunami.

HD DVD was already falling well behind in sales when Warner let the dogs out. It reportedly lagged 3:1 in player sales in the U.S., 10:1 in Europe, and 100:1 in Japan. To be fair, those figures likely include PS3 sales and don't take into account the sales of high def player/recorders, which are more popular in Japan than play-only machines. (Apart from computer drives, HD disc recorders remain unavailable here in the U.S. due to pirating paranoia.)

So why am I about to pull the trigger on a new Toshiba HD DVD player? Well, for starters, the price on our review sample is definitely right. But most important, I have over 100 HD DVD titles that I'd like to continue enjoying (including a number of test discs), not to mention using them as familiar source material for video reviews. I need a player that will continue to fully support them. My first-generation HD-A1 lacks important features I need, such as support for 1080p/60 and 1080p/24, but it will continue to soldier on as a backup.

The war should have been over months ago. Toshiba was never able to generate a broad-based support for its format. Most observers commented on this, but focused on HD DVD's narrower studio support, even though the number of released titles is roughly the same for both formats. That's largely because Warner and Universal have dominated HD DVD releases with their massive film libraries. Finding great titles among those releases did require separating a little wheat from a lot of chaff, but that charge could be leveled at both formats.

HD DVD has, however, offered up some genuine hits: the Complete Matrix Trilogy (a Warner Brothers release, but still unavailable on Blu-ray), Seabiscuit, Heroes: Season One, all three Bourne films, Star Trek: Season One (the original series), Peter Jackson's King Kong, and Transformers. It will be a while before the dust settles and these and other HD-DVD exclusive titles are re-released on Blu-ray.

But software support was only one side of the equation. I commented over a year ago that the Achilles heal of the HD DVD format was lack of hardware support. Toshiba was the only manufacturer producing significant numbers of HD DVD players (and re-badged players for other companies).

The one-supplier paradigm made for rapid resolution of the sort of compatibility glitches that have plagued Blu-ray. But one hardware supplier does not a format make. If, for example, Panasonic decided to stop making Blu-ray players tomorrow, it would barely be a passing shower on Blu-ray's parade. But now that Toshiba has stopped building players, the HD DVD jig is up.

This decision would appear to free Paramount/Dreamworks and Universal, the remaining major studios supporting HD DVD exclusively, from any contractual commitments to continue support for the format. I would expect Blu-ray announcements from both of those companies in the coming days or weeks. But it will take more weeks, or even months, before we see a significant number of titles from them. Paramount will probably come first; they have recent experience with Blu-ray. Universal is starting from scratch (there have been reports that its HD DVD masters are incompatible with Blu-ray and may have to be redone), but I would be surprised if it didn't already have plans in place.

With just one HD disc format remaining, once the dust of consumer confusion clears from the format war the market potential for packaged high definition media will take a major step forward. You can take that to the bank.

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