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Is There Room For Two HD Formats?

2 Apr, 2006 By: Thomas K. Arnold

I recently moderated a panel on next-generation optical discs at the Digital Hollywood Conference.

Panelists spent half the time saying a format war won't be nearly as hurtful as anyone says, and the other half insisting the particular format they are championing — Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD — will prevail.

How long could both formats survive? No one had answers. Instead, Warner Home Video's Steve Nickerson said our business is the exception rather than the rule, with multiple noncompatible formats surviving in most other industries, including video games (Xbox versus PlayStation versus Game Boy).

Ironically, a day later word came that Sony's UMD format, hailed as a great way to watch movies on the go, will likely be limited to games for the PlayStation Portable in the future. Movies just aren't selling. Mobile consumers prefer to take their DVDs in their SUVs, and the handheld generation seems to have settled on the video iPod as their preferred entertainment-viewing option.

The PSP, marketed by Sony as a multimedia device when it launched one year ago, is being used almost exclusively to play video games.

So much for the dual-format theory. Yes, other industries may find a peaceful coexistence between noncompatible formats, but movies and music seem to be the exception. The CD was a success because everyone agreed the five-inch audio disc was the way to go. DVD-Audio and SACD failed because they both came to market and neither side gave up.

When VHS went up against Beta, VHS triumphed. But it can be argued that the VHS would have taken off even faster had there not been two formats competing against each other and confusing the consumer.

The Blu-ray versus HD DVD battle will either follow the DVD-Audio/SACD playbook, which would be deadly for our industry, or the VHS-versus-Beta fight, resulting in slower, more measured mass acceptance. In either case, this is hardly an ideal situation. But as Nickerson said, “you can look at it as the glass is half full or the glass is half empty.”

Clearly, the studios are doing the former. I'm wondering whether anyone's going to want to take a drink at all.

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