Shooting Blanks

As the old saying goes, what if they started a war and nobody came? That seems to be the case with the simmering format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD. To the consumer who bothers to keep up on developments, it must look like a phony war.

Launch dates keep slipping, promised products are delayed, and all the while each side continues to put on its happy face. At the recent Sony line show (news feature to be posted today) it was cheerfully announced that the much-anticipated Playstation3 gaming platform would be in the stores for the big end-of-year shopping season. But it was originally scheduled for arrival this spring, and was to be Sony's first product capable of playing Blu-ray movie discs (the stand-alone BDP-S1 has a July launch date).

Meanwhile, a Warner Brothers PR announcement on their first three HD-DVD titles for mid-April did not mention that this was not only a delay of nearly 3 weeks, but more importantly involved far fewer titles than were originally announced at the recent January CES. The additional titles have now been scheduled for later release, dates unspecified. Unless some other studios step up to the plate fast, with public announcements of specific titles, you might be able to spin up exactly three high definition titles on the day you bring home your shiny new HD-DVD player. And one of the selling points of HD-DVD was that it would be easy to convert standard DVD production facilities to HD-DVD! As a reviewer, I don't like trying to come to conclusions about any format based on a limited selection of players and discs.

Nevertheless, all of these are the teething problems common to any new product. They're laid bare in this case because of the high profile of the format war, and because each side is rushing to trump the other. Rushing often leads to setbacks, which is exactly what is happening here.

DVD had its own launch problems. Remember DIVX? The early lack of full anamorphic widescreen titles? The foot-dragging by several important studios? The separate DTS releases? The complaints (short-lived) of die-hard laserdisc fans? All of these sorted themselves out.

The only reason for concern now is the presence of so many alternatives. DVD is a major success story, and even some enthusiasts (not us!) are wondering if we really need anything better so soon (9 years) after DVDs launch. Movie downloads are in their infancy, but I know experts who see the whole Blu-ray / HD-DVD flap as tilting at windmills. To them, the future obviously belongs to accessing movies over the Internet.

I don't agree at all. If history tells us anything, it's that the best quality in sound and images has always come from packaged media. Providers of other means of delivery, including audio on radio, or video on broadcast, satellite, or cable (and we might include your friendly neighborhood multiplex in the group as well!), will find a way to degrade quality if it means bigger profits. Long-time satellite TV owners will tell you that quality has deteriorated over the years as more and more stations are squeezed into a pipeline that's not growing nearly fast enough to accommodate the demand. The same thing is true of cable. Over-the-air HD delivery has the highest potential, but its offerings are limited in many parts of the country.

As for downloading, while today's impossibly long download times (for a full-length HD movie) will improve, will they do so at the cost of quality? You need only look at the MP3 phenomenon in music to find a depressing answer. The mass market for downloads will always demand faster and cheaper. Quality is a secondary concern—if it's a concern at all.

For those reasons, and others, I'm a major supporter high definition delivery via a packaged product I can hold in my hand. Fortunately, there's another factor that favors the acceptance of HD via optical disc. Most of the world, including Europe, is presently without any significant high definition broadcasting. Blu-ray or HD-DVD is their best chance for a wide selection of HD material.

While it's still too early to say which side will win (or if they'll co-exist side-by-side, particularly if dual format players become practical) I hope that one or both turns into a smashing success.