More Spin in Next-Gen Disc War

The advent of Blu-ray and HD DVD isn't the first time I've covered a format launch- DVD was still pretty fresh and new when I started in this biz in the late 90s. Things have changed a lot since then, especially in the way that the PR machines are operating and interacting with the online community. And what better evidence of that is there than the fact that esoteric technical details like "yield rates" and "cycle times" are a frequent water cooler topic among the uninitiated?

For those who don't frequent these areas of the various forums out there, yield rates refer to the percentage of properly working discs out of a run, or batch of replicated discs. The higher the yield percentages, the better the profitability. Cycle times refer to how long it takes to replicate a single disc.

Of particular interest here, it's claimed by Blu-ray's detractors that yields of 50GB dual-layer discs are low, and that the cycle times are ridiculously long. Therefore, according to these rumors, those discs are very inefficient end thus expensive to produce. Further, rumors persist that getting yields as high as they are requires staying well under the 50GB capacity limit. This is a big deal because Blu-ray's main story vs. HD DVD is higher disc capacity.

HD DVD's side of this equation is the opposite. From the get-go HD DVD has claimed as one of its strengths its similarity to the DVD format, which makes replication cheaper, faster and easier. Yields are claimed to be in the mid-to-high 90s, and it's also been claimed that dual-layer HD DVD discs cost far less to produce than 50GB BDs. All of which is admittedly very difficult to qualify or verify in any meaningful way.

Nevertheless, I'm guessing that there might be some truth to this given that the Blu-ray PR machine actually felt the need to speak to the press about its replication prowess. Kinda like boxing- you never see a guy mock that the other didn't hurt him unless he actually did get buzzed at least a little.

Sony's disc replication facility itself put the word out this week that it's produced its 10 millionth 50GB Blu-ray Disc, that yields are improving and even approaching that of standard DVD, and cycle times are also improving, i.e., getting faster. But one thing the people responsible for releasing this information didn't count on is the David Vaughn factor.

Vaughn is kind of the new guy around here, and he's just immersed in all things format war. Dude has his ear to the ground on this stuff.

So, this week a Sony DADC exec is quoted in Video Business as saying that BD50 yields "have increased steadily and are consistently between 75% and 79%." Dave emails and says, "hey wait a minute...", and then digs up an article from Consumer Electronics Daily from October of 2006 that quotes a Sony exec as saying that "yields are averaging 80% on single-layer 25GB media," while 50GB yields were then "ever so slightly less."

So, the question Dave asked me is, if yields are steadily increasing as production ramps, why, according to Sony's own numbers, are the yields still so suspiciously similar a full year later? Were the numbers last year actually much lower than claimed? Are the numbers this year still inflated or on the money? Should we care?

I don't know how much any of this will or won't matter. But Paramount went exclusively HD DVD, and Paramount's CTO Alan Bell looked me in the eye and stated that he recommended this path in part because he believed HD DVD replication was more viable as the format moves into mainstream production numbers. Rumors are persisting that Warner, the remaining dual-format major studio is approaching a moment of decision. So perhaps this isn't the last we'll hear of this.