Reality Bytes: Formats with Poker Faces

"DO I FEEL LUCKY?" (Well, do ya, punk?) That's the question that millions of people are asking themselves as they think about buying a new video player. In particular, should they go for Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD? If you choose one and buy a few hundred movies for it, but the format goes bust, you'll be lucky to recoup pennies on the dollar on eBay. That's quite a gamble.

Ever since Berliner flat discs challenged Edison cylinders, the consumer entertainment market has been rougher than a gambling-hall fistfight. When companies play nice, then wonderful things happen. Like the CD. And the original DVD. But more often, companies are unwilling to share the pot. That's understandable; if you compromise, you and your adversary each get a few billion. If you hang tough, you might get all those billions for yourself, and you might deal your competitor a mortal blow.

Meanwhile, consumers are jokers in this high-stakes game of corporate brinkmanship. They can choose sides, or they can simply do nothing. Case in point: DVD-Audio and SACD. Both sides stonewalled for so long that the average, mainstream consumers they were originally targeting gave up. Even after universal players were introduced, those consumers weren't interested. Instead, as is often pointed out, the winner of that deadlock was the iPod.

Now we have another classic showdown: Blu-ray and HD DVD. True, as in any showdown, hedges are emerging. LG is offering the Super Multi Blue player, which was featured on this magazine's April cover. Essentially, it's a Blu-ray machine that also plays HD DVD and DVD (but, oddly, not CD). And Warner has plans for a Total Hi Def disc, which can hold a Blu-ray movie on one side and an HD DVD version on the other. Both of these developments are encouraging. But, of course, consumers will have to pay a premium to support two formats, rather than just the price of what one format would have cost.

Clearly ignoring the best interests of their customers, both sides are fighting hard. One Blu-ray newsletter features headlines proclaiming "Blu-ray Victory Inevitable" and "Now Superiority Will Prevail." Personally, I wouldn't be surprised to see, in response, leaflets provocatively asking: "Blu-ray and Toenail Fungus: Close Friends or Just Kissing Cousins?"

Neither side is backing down. That's because it's not just big money at stake; it's really big money. In addition to inheriting the DVD-Video kingdom, the winner gets computer optical storage - and videogaming, too. Imagine owning a technology that's found in every home theater, every desktop and laptop computer, and every videogame console. And that's just the hardware. Now imagine the honking big piles of discs - both prerecorded titles and blanks - that accompany each of those drives. The mind boggles.

The Hollywood studios pledged eternal loyalty to one format or another, but they would switch to the perceived winning format faster than data can shoot out of a port. Long-term, Hollywood doesn't really care who wins, or if both lose. Having noticed that downloading is the future of the music business, Hollywood realizes that downloading is also the future of movie sales. While Blu-ray and HD DVD stare each other down, convenient high-def movie downloading is fast approaching.

Yes, the ultimate winner of this deadlock may be Hollywood downloads. Bummer. You have to know how to hold 'em. But you also have to know when to fold 'em.

For more on HD DVD and Blu-ray, go to our HD DVD/Blu-ray Info Center.

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