As I guessed (once it was getting pretty obvious), Blu-ray has won the high definition optical disc format war. After Warners announced they were going exclusively Blu-ray, then Netflix, Best Buy, Blockbuster and Walmart said they were too, and Toshiba finally acquiesced and took HD DVD out in the back yard and shot it. Poor Old Yeller, but he had to be put down.
OK, so what will this mean? Lets run through repercussions for us as consumers, and more interestingly, as content creators.
-HD DVD is dead. Long may it fester *. But in the meantime, there are still a ton of players out there that will be firesaled, and there are a lot of discs out there. If you are like me and already own an HD DVD player, it is worth looking around for some ultra cheap movies to pick up on HD DVD rather than waiting for them and/or paying more to be re-released on Blu-ray. The downside? Once your existing HD DVD player keels over, those movies aren’t playable anywhere else, nor can you play them anywhere else other than the existing HD DVD players. Even though HD DVD players will be available for a song, and they are giving away a bunch of movies with them, I still don’t think it is worth picking one up, UNLESS you want somthing not available in Blu-ray now and aren’t willing to wait till Christmas for the next round of Blu-ray player price drops.
* Not really a fair statement, just fun to say. I have a player and several discs, and I like the overlay menus, but I dislike the “acts like a slow computer struggling to play the content” aspect that the PS3 doesn’t have with Blu-ray discs.
It’ll be interesting to see, now that the format war question is out of the way, what the REAL level of consumer interest is for high definition content. The analysts and “research” have been indicating that of those interested in high def content, one of the major reasons for folks not purchasing was fear of picking the losing format. OK, that barrier is out of the way. Will consumers rush to buy in the coming months? Or will it take more titles being available on Blu-ray? Or more price drops, most likely come Christmas? The biggest fear, I’d imagine, is that the truth of the matter is that the biggest competitor to Blu-ray isn’t HD DVD, isn’t pay-per-view high def movies, isn’t even AppleTV – it is plain old upconverting DVD players, ubiquitously available for under $100. For most folks, upconverted regular DVDs on their HDTV looks pretty darned good, and the thought of spending $250-$600 on a player isn’t appealing.
THE SIZE PROBLEM
There’s plenty of folks that haven’t even made the leap to high def yet. Anecdotally, the family friends I was staying with in Los Angeles this week (retired folks in their 60s and 70s) still have a regular SDTV, no HDTV. The husband was reading about HD DVD’s demise, and asked what it was all about. He then asked if HD DVD discs would play in his existing uprezzing DVD player. Nope I said. What about Blu-ray? Nope as well. I then explained he’d have to buy a new TV set (HD of course), then a $300-$500 Blu-ray player, and THEN he could see something better than DVDs (he watches on a 32 or 36 inch set from about 12-15 feet away). Ex-military that he is, I shant print his response to that.
And I don’t think that is an unusual circumstance for a lot of people who aren’t techheads like you and me (and by any definition, you are a propeller beanie boy/girl if you’re reading this). First they have to know something is better, then they have to want it, then they have to be able to afford it. We (you and I) typically run that loop a lot faster than most.
But I don’t think high def content, delivered in ANY fashion, is going to really take off until BIG HDTVs get CHEAP. If you recall from this chart I posted with permission from Carlton Bale quite some time back, you can’t even eyeball the difference between 480p (DVDs) and 720p (the lesser HD resolution) from 12 feet away until you get a set over 50 inches.
Since most HDTVs presently in homes are 37 or fewer inches across, and if typical viewing distance is 8-10 feet at best…most folks won’t be able to tell the difference, or at least a meaningful difference. My prediction – not until 50+ inch sets of 720p or more get under $1000 will the curve start to move meaningfully for HD. And that will also require a cultural shift – look at your parents’ and older friends’ attitudes (your friends who aren’t movie fanatics – so let us presume that is your relatives in the Midwest). My parents, my parents’ friends, they all want the TV AWAY – it lives in a cabinet with the doors closed when not in use. HDTVs, by nature of their wide aspect, don’t live well in those environments unless you have a HUGE piece of furniture. Good, as in large, HDTVs want to sit out by themselves in the viewing room, with a heavy duty “Look at ME!” attitude. Patterns are changing rapidly, fortunately, but they are starting from a place that doesn’t lend itself to seeing the difference between SD and HD due to size and viewing distances.
By the time you get up to a 60″ set (as I bought), you can REALLY see the difference between SD adn HD. SD DVDs look really good, high def looks fantastic. But as with many things economic, Good Enough is Good Enough. Until you have the disposable income and the desire, most won’t make the jump. And until a BIG set is CHEAP – say 50 inches for $600 – a lot of people aren’t going to invest in HD. So, I’d expect Blu-ray sales to remain non-spectacular until sets big sets get cheap – then wait for the perception-not-reality gap to catch up some months later when folks first realize big sets are actually cheap, then see the difference Blu-ray makes, then mull it over, THEN buy, perhaps waiting until the next big sales event.
Rumors are floating that Microsoft may have a Blu-ray add-on for Xbox360 as early has May or June. While I’m sure it smarts for them, as they helped develop the interactivity layer, HD DVD is, as the cops used to say upon arrival on particularly gruesome car crash, “DRT” – that’s short for Dead Right There, no need to check for vitals. So Microsoft has to face that reality (as well as Toshiba). And the reality is that their game system has no viable high def disc player. Two options there – they can either go with the winning format, or start to seriously push for skipping right past optical discs and going for downloadable movies (which still have to get stored SOMEWHERE, and portability and long term archival issues are still a pain). If they can get the Xbox360 movie download stuff working seamlessly and interchangeably with Windows PCs, then they have a fighting chance. Chance, not victory.
Adobe is sitting pretty right now – they decided long ago to offer Blu-ray authoring capabilities with their Creative Suites for video, and they are well positioned now that Blu-ray is the only high def optical disc format of note.
With tight integration between Photoshop, Premiere, After Effects, Flash, and Encore, and the super gravy bonus of being able to author to Flash as well as DVD or Blu-ray, the capability for businesses to author content once and deploy online, SD and HD discs is GREAT. Meanwhile….
Apple isn’t making me happy of late, even though I love their stuff in general and am a total Mac junkie. After pulling out of NAB citing rising costs and better uses to reach their clients, I read between the lines to see that Apple doesn’t have significant product to release this year. Someone else was noting that Apple tends to have big and little years at NAB, and this is going to be a little year. So I’ll read that as no significant new Final Cut Pro relases, no significant new hardware, and that would include a Blu-ray burner and new DVD Studio Pro if they were going to have it. It is a bit hard to read the pull-out of NAB – how drastic a move is it? We won’t know till we get closer. When Avid pulled out, it was universally hailed as “Uh oh, they are in trouble.” But now that Apple has as well, we have to re-evaluate that stance.
But I’m thinking it likely that Apple isn’t ready to go Blu-ray yet, and that troubles me greatly.
Apple has been a bit schizophrenic about high def disc support – at MWSF 2005 (yep, that far back, I double checked) Steve Jobs got up on stage with then head of Sony and talked about how this would be the year of high def, and that we’d have Blu-ray burners in Macs in the near future. Fast forward THREE YEARS – that’s a geological era in computer years – and we STILL don’t have Blu-ray burners. OK, that’s hardware. What about software?
Apple figured out fairly early on how to make HD DVD content that could be burned to regular DVDs, and would play (at first) on Macs with sufficiently updated software and fast enough hardware, and eventually (painfully long time, just about a year now) would play properly on set top boxes (we had to wait until firmware updates for players came out and DVD Studio Pro was updated till it all worked well together). But no HD DVD burners ever came to light.
So now, we wait for a Blu-ray burner, which does not seem to be forthcoming. I hope Apple has a pre-NAB press event as they usually do, and they give us SOME hope on that front.
BTW – my advice? The PS3 is the best deal going on Blu-ray players – most readily upgradeable, most capable, and Oh Yeah! You can play PS3 games on it too. It does a great job uprezzing regular DVDs, and the only downside as a hardware device is that it is pretty loud, you have to get custom interface cables (LAME!), and you have to buy an aftermarket reomte if you don’t want to fast forward with a game controller. The remote is also Bluetooth only – sexy and modern until you realize you can’t integrate those functions into a universal remote that doesn’t have Bluetooth – which is most of them. So you HAVE to have a second remote. Bummer.
Avid has already had Blu-ray authoring support for some time, so no great shakes for them – they are ready, they’ve been ready. Good for them.
So, in summary:
Toshiba – KO’d on this one – they lost
Sony – winner take all, but dunno how big “all” is going to be – will Blu-ray simply be Laserdisc 2.0? We don’t know yet
Consumers – winners in that there is a clear victor after a relatively short format war, but HD DVD early adopters are the casualties, and now price competition will ease on Blu-ray players. I predict slow sales drops until the Christmas push.
Microsoft – taking a hit on this one, but they’ll persevere and adapt
Adobe – sitting pretty with their nicely integrated suite and multi-format publishing capabilities, sure to be a hit with the enterprise video crowd. Apple – you listening?
Apple – sucking rocks this minute as to this issue with no burners, no sofware support for the winning format. Yo Apple devs – get on it!
Avid – already had Blu-ray authoring, so no need for them to fret either.
OK, that’s it for now, tune in next episode…