The high definition television disk format war effectively ended this week when Toshiba announced it was pulling the plug on its HD DVD format, leaving the market to Blu-Ray, the competing format developed by Sony. The move is expected to jump-start sales of high-definition disks and players, at least until the next big thing comes along.
Format wars have been part of technological innovation at least since the 19th century, when Edison and Westinghouse battled over standards for electric power transmission.
More recently, a generation ago, Beta and VHS competed for the home video market. PC Magazine editor in chief Lance Ulanoff says there are parallels between that format war, which Sony lost, and the high definition format war, which Sony won.
ULANOFF: "It was widely accepted that Betamax was the superior format. And many people say Blu-Ray is supposedly the superior format and now it's won. I kind of disagree, in that there's very little difference between the two formats. But beyond that, the analogy is quite good. In much the same way, the industry realized that it doesn't matter which is the superior technology. What matters is, which will people buy?"
BLU-RAY PROMO: "Blu-Ray is a totally new, high-definition digital disc technology that's changing DVD the same way DVD changed VHS."
Blu-Ray has one technical advantage over HD DVD: bigger capacity. A double-layer Blu-Ray disk can hold 50 gigabytes of data, almost twice as much as an HD DVD. Longer running time helped VHS prevail in the battle of the competing videocassette formats. But Ulanoff says a bigger factor this time was the alliance that coalesced around Blu-Ray, starting with the fact that its backer, Sony, also owns a movie studio.
ULANOFF: "That was one part of it. But there was also the partnership for distribution. Things really began to fall apart for Toshiba and the HD DVD guys when Warner Bros. walked away at the beginning of January. That was followed by Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Netflix, and others walking away from the HD DVD format. So suddenly, all their major distribution partners said, nah, you know, this isn't working for us."
Ulanoff says that Sony also benefited from the fact that it included a Blu-Ray player in its popular PS3 video game console.
ULANOFF: "Sony got really beat up last year for the PS3. One, it seemed too big, it was too expensive, it wasn't selling well. And it had this Blu-Ray player in it. You know, what the heck were people going to do with that? Nobody had Blu-Ray discs. Well, now that seems like a stroke of genius because that helped seed the Blu-Ray technology into probably over a million American homes. And that may have made all the difference."
Sony won the battle of the high definition home video disc formats, but it's an open question as to how much that victory is worth. While the market for physical media containing movies and other video content is not going to disappear overnight, analysts expect that consumers will eventually get more of their entertainment delivered over the Internet.
ULANOFF: "We're again in a time of transition, because now people can download high-def[inition] movies without a player at all. Now, the quality is not as high. You also don't get all the extras. But the advent of the Internet kind of is a game changer here. So, Blu-Ray will sell. But the question is, will they sell the same kind of volume they did 10, 15 years ago, or will more people start to look at set-top boxes as the way to get high-def content to their TVs?"
And Lance Ulanoff of PC Magazine adds that, like compact discs and DVDs, a data version of Blu-Ray is likely to be a standard computer accessory in years to come, with many times the storage capacity of today's DVD.