Hollywood Blu's

March 7 - If your ears have been buzzing lately, I can guess your problem. Like bees in a hive, Toshiba and Sony are building noise in anticipation of their now-imminent showdown over the next generation of DVDs - the high-def generation.

With Toshiba set to roll out its first HD DVD players at the end of March and Sony's Blu-ray camp at least two months behind, each side is scrambling to win you over and cast doubt on its opponent's long-term viability. For HD DVD, that amounts to a month-long 40-city tour to demonstrate the format in stores and get an early toehold with $499 players. For the Blu-ray group, the all too obvious strategy is to garner whatever publicity it can to stifle HD DVD's jump on players and software. The thinking seems to be that, as long as consumers are aware there are two competing formats, it won't matter that they can't buy what they can't see ... because they won't buy what they can see either.

I'll save my anti-format-war tirade for another day. Suffice it to say that I lived through VHS vs. Betamax, and it wasn't pretty. If anything, it was pretty bad for everybody in the chain: studios, manufacturers, hardware and software retailers, and especially consumers. And it went on for years. But I digress.

Turns out this was a fascinating week to be a war correspondent on the high-def battleground. On February 22, Toshiba invited the New York consumer electronics press to a store on Manhattan's Upper West Side to see the demo it's using to introduce HD DVD to consumers. There wasn't a person in the room who hadn't already seen the players work at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, but this wasn't about the product. It was about visibility - the chance for Toshiba to demonstrate that, after months of false promise and delay, the corner had been turned. After watching some spectacular-looking trailers for The 40-Year-Old Virgin and King Kong on an average-size HDTV rear projector, we got lunch and a nice shirt announcing HD DVD as "A Defining Moment in Home Entertainment." If I get enough requests, I'll throw mine up on eBay together with the now well-worn T-shirt I got from Toshiba in '97 when it launched DVD - the one proclaiming the company as "The Leader in Digital Video Disc Technology." Which was true, considering that it invented the format and then actually got Sony to cave on a competing technology to avoid just the kind of format war we're now headed into. But I digress again.

Four days after the New York press demo, the Sunday edition of The New York Times threw the equivalent of the Big Interception - a critical article about Sony and the format war that strongly suggested that, after months of Blu-ray's apparent dominance, the momentum was shifting to HD DVD. The story (www.nytimes.com), written by Ken Belson, painted Blu-ray as an uber-technology so complex, so expensive, and so fledgling that the company will have to either abandon a plan to put Blu-ray players in the first release of its Playstation 3 game consoles or delay the system's rumored spring introduction by months. You could almost hear the giddy cries out of Toshiba's New Jersey digs, echoed by the pained groans from Sony's San Diego headquarters. ... Damn! There's that buzz again! Must see a doctor about that.

But the week wasn't over. Coincidentally, Sony had our ears again just two days later in Hollywood at a press junket that had been hastily planned a couple of weeks earlier (presumably to help counter the launch of HD DVD's retail tour). So, with this searing Times piece tucked into our flak jackets, we donned our combat helmets and dutifully filed into a theater on the Sony Pictures lot for a technical briefing on how Blu-ray discs are encoded and mastered.

It was an impressive session: Sony digitally projected a trailer from the upcoming Adam Sandler comedy Click on a giant 23-foot screen, with half the image in Blu-ray and the other half as the uncompressed master from the high-def digital cinema camera used to shoot the movie. It was virtually impossible to tell the difference. But the back story had more sex appeal than the tech story: In the aftermath of the Times article, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE) had on Monday finally announced a street date for its first Blu-ray discs: May 23, with eight titles to start, including 50 First Dates, Hitch, House of Flying Daggers, and of course, The Fifth Element. Eight additional Sony and MGM titles were also announced for June and early summer. (See Blu-ray to Debut May 23 for the full list.)

May 23 has added significance: it's the day the first Blu-ray player, a $1,000 model from Samsung, will be available in stores. The Blu-ray camp has said all along that software would be available when the hardware comes out. But can they really deliver? With respect to Samsung, this is a complex new technology, and it's remarkable - even odd - that Sony would allow so much to ride on the delivery of product from another Blu-ray partner. To that end, Sony execs expressed confidence in the date and stated very clearly that Samsung was receiving Blu-ray engineering support to make sure the player launch goes smoothly.

In any event, the announcement at least partially addressed doubts raised by the Times story about hardware being available anytime soon. "The article was very timely," commented Don Eklund, senior vice president for advanced technologies at SPHE. "I think our announcement of a May 23 launch date pretty much drives a stake through that." Fritz Friedman, SPHE's senior vice president for worldwide publicity chimed in as well: "It is a format war," he observed, "and it's being played out in the media."

Well, sure - in the absence of playing it out in players, where else? But the last salvos will be launched not by the media, or even by the manufacturers or studios backing the respective formats. It's the consumers - yes, you - who will have the final word here, and we're still many months away from that decision. In the meantime, better pull out that body armor.

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