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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Tim's picture

On the next to last paragraph, on the fourth line up, I think you mean to reference Blu-ray not HD DVD.

Toim Norton's picture

Right you are, Tim! Good catch. It has been corrected.

Tom Norton's picture

It's hard to keep up on this developing story. Shortly after I posted this blog, Universal announced that it will soon begin releasing new and catalog titles on Blu-ray. Can Paramount/Dreamworks be far behind?

Stephen - Ontario's picture

Hi Tom, re your comment about keeping up - indeed! I awoke this morning to the news that Paramount is now back on Blu-ray. The big battle is now to convince consumers that hi-def disc is the way to go (which I hope happens, since I can't buy regular DVDs anymore after watching - and listening to - Blu-rays for the last six months). The biggest threat in my view is not downloads, but up-converting DVD players. However, people are becoming aware of hi-def as cable and satellite providers are pushing it (even Apple with the Apple TV), but what i am finding is a lack of appreciation that a DVD through an up-converting player is not hi-def!

Claude's picture

Upconversion is not hi-def and you will know this when you see it. Even though a $400 player is well priced compared to my first DVD player which was a Sony priced at $450....and I got a deal!...prices of entry-level HW need to hit $200-$300 soon in order to spur sales while the iron is hot. This price makes it much easier for folks to make the "buy" decision. Also, marketing needs to let folks know that their shiny new Blu-Ray machine will aslo play their regular DVD's and even upconvert them.

Harry Clark's picture

Please help me with a puzzle. I'm an owner of an 'old' Mitsubishi HD ready set which uses Comcast's Motorola box with component cables to get my HD. The set has no HDMI, which I have been told in the past was necessary for any HD DVD. Now salesmen are telling me that Blu-ray and HD-DVD players don't need HDMI. Which is it? My set is 1080i and the few times Comcast has actually put out the lines (one football game) the 1080i was eye popping, especially compared to the 480p and 960i that is our normal fare from Comcast.

Claude's picture

Clark - you don't need HDMI to view a Blu-Ray disc. I have a Sony KV-34XBR800 CRT and use it's DVI input for the video from my Directv HR20 and one of the Component inputs for my PS3. I had a "handshake" issue with my PS3 and my set, so went to Component. It works great and looks fantastic.

ender21's picture

It's hard to imagine Universal's HD masters being "incompatible" with Blu-Ray, though I suppose it depends how far up the chain of their pipeline they want to go before it becomes problematic by their standards. Ideally, they get out their D5 or HDCAM-SR master tape and reencode that at a higher bitrate of whatever codec they choose, and they're done (in a nutshell). If they wish to use a current encode used for HDDVD release, I could see the necessity for a reencode to utilize higher bitrates for blu-ray, but to label them as "incompatible" with is a bit misleading. I'm not blaming Thomas Norton for that, since he's merely reporting what has been floating about cyberspace already. If that's Universal's official stance, then I think they're spinning it to buy themselves time for some reason.

Tom Norton's picture

It's my understanding that it isn't the film transfers themselves that may make the Universal masters incompatible with Blu-ray, but rather peripheral things like the menus, which are mastered differently than on HD DVD. Of course, it's also possible that Universal might want to remaster some of the films as well, to take advantage of the extra data capacity for such things as uncompressed PCM audio (hint hint...), or, where possible, improved picture quality.

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