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Put Down Your Lasers and Come Up With a Standard!

22 Apr, 2004 By: Thomas K. Arnold

The drive to come to market with a high-definition optical disc is accelerating as the deadline for HDTV draws nearer. At this point, it's looking like a two-horse race, with one camp pushing for a technological revolution and the other, more of an evolution.

Blu-ray uses a whole new technology that employs a blue laser rather than a red. HD-DVD, on the other hand, favors maxing out existing DVD technology in the belief that letting manufacturers keep the same plant and equipment to replicate the new high-def discs will keep costs down — and at the same time minimize consumer confusion by retaining the “DVD” tag, which Blu-ray won't.

The big challenge, at this point, is for both sides to come to the table and work out a compromise, much like the competing DVD camps did in 1996, a year before DVD's launch. This is a must — if two competing next-gen formats come to market, consumers will thumb their noses at both, and the launch will be a disaster, a train wreck every bit as devastating as the music industry's ill-fated push for a next-generation CD with two incompatible formats: DVD-Audio and SACD.

I'm assuming this won't happen on the video side — after all, look how neatly a compromise was brokered for DVD, and how successful the resultant hybrid has been.But even if all goes well and the first high-definition product hits stores in time for the 2005 holidays, I wonder how this rollout will compare to DVD.

Of course, both DVD and its high-def successor will coexist for some time, much like DVD and VHS. In each case, the new format required a new player, but in the DVD-vs.-VHS case, the differences in picture quality, sound quality and capacity were so great that despite a somewhat rocky launch DVD's success really was never in question.

But to notice the difference between DVD and a high-definition optical disc, consumers won't just need a new player, but also a new TV — a high-definition TV.And this, really, is where the next-generation product's fate lies.

There are two schools of thought here. One is that because ordinary DVD is still relatively young, you won't see the maddening rush to convert that you did with VHS. Keep in mind that when DVD arrived on the scene, the home video industry was in trouble — VHS penetration was north of 90 percent, and the novelty had long ago worn off.

DVD still excites people — and with the extra hardware purchase required to experience the benefits of high-def, the transition curve to Blu-ray or HD-DVD or whatever they call the compromise that will surely be hammered out (BVD? Sorry!) might be a lot less pronounced.

And yet there are those who believe the high-def disc will catch fire with the public even more rapidly than DVD. They note that HDTV isn't even going to be an option two or three years down the pike — broadcasts will be in high-def, and that's going to make consumers want everything in high-def. Furthermore, the rise of DVD saw a similar ascension of elaborate home theater systems, many already equipped with high-definition TVs.

“We'll have a waiting audience,” said a top executive with one of the rival camps. “They won't think twice about buying a player, so what I think you'll see is a faster adoption rate than DVD.”

Interesting point. We'll just have to wait and see.

But first, let's get a standard. Otherwise, I can tell you right now how fast the new format will catch on.


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