'I Want It All!'

DVD is a swell format. The picture looks sharp, and the surround sound is cool. I bet that lots of people could go on watching DVDs forever, enjoying the heck out of them. But the DVD format is 10 years old - so it's a whopping big pile of obsolete junk that needs to be replaced ASAP. Or, in more corporate terms: Because 82% of U.S. homes have one or more DVD players, sales have slowed to a crawl. Besides, players sell for less than frozen broccoli, so profits are slimmer than a fashion model on smack. Sure, movie studios are making lots of money off DVD, but hardware companies need something new to boost their bottom lines.

The technology to replace DVD will be HD DVD, or Blu-ray Disc, or both. Toshiba is the chieftain of HD DVD and Sony the ringleader of Blu-ray, and they're not speaking to each other. Both formats use optical discs that look a lot like plain ol' DVDs, but they offer greater storage capacity and more features. Blu-ray holds the edge in potential capacity, storing 50 gigabytes to HD's 30, but the formats are fairly similar.

It would make perfect sense to merge the technologies into a universal standard, avoid a format war, and get down to the business of making money. History shows us that universal standards tend to do very well indeed. Last time I checked, things like CD, DVD, MPEG, and JPEG had generated a few sales. History also shows us what happens when formats compete: Consumers get confused, and they buy nothing. Are you listening to DCC or MD right now?

Yes, unification makes perfect sense - and it almost certainly won't happen. You see, with huge profits (and corporate hubris) at stake, neither Toshiba nor Sony wants to share. The battle concerns more than the black boxes in your living room. It's the entire tech environment. HD DVD and Blu-ray drives will power the next generation of home theater systems, and those sales are worth billions. So are the disc sales of new releases (and reissued titles already on DVD). HD DVD and Blu-ray will also up the ante of videogame consoles; Sony is putting Blu-ray drives into its PlayStation 3, and Microsoft will add HD DVD to its Xbox 360. And the formats will appear in PCs, too.

Add up the market values, and - if you win the format war - you're potentially so rich that you can buy Bill Gates's stock portfolio, set it on fire, and use it to light your cigar made of tobacco grown on Mars, the planet you bought because your wife thinks the red color matches the drapes in the White House, which you also bought.

So each side doesn't want to share - even if that means gambling to the point where it might wind up with nothing. Sony still remembers VHS vs. Betamax. It lost that format war, and Beta buyers wound up with a lot of tapes in the upstairs closet. Despite the risk of winding up with nothing, Sony and Toshiba are forging ahead. After all, they'll need piles of cash to develop the next format to replace HD DVD and/or Blu-ray. The clock is already ticking. And in only 10 years, those formats will both be whopping big piles of obsolete junk.

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