22
Feb
08

So the Format War is Over…. (or at least the physical format war)

OK, so it’s finally official: HD DVD is dead and Blu-Ray has won. (You know it’s become a mainstream story when my mother talks about it.) I’ve been surveying the tech pundits and listening to them weigh-in on the situation now that the so-called “High Definition DVD Format War” is over.

Much of the tech community agree (and have always agreed) that a war like this wasn’t good for the industry. (At least on the surface, it wasn’t.) The mainstream public is already confused enough about the difference between plasma and LCD….720P and 1080P….Dolby True HD vs. DTS….and now add the fact that they need to choose between high definition DVD formats? While it’s true that having a single format from the start would seemingly make for a clearer choice for consumers, Ben Drawbaugh of Engadget HD had an interesting take on benefits gained from this “war”. On the podcast this week, he talked about the fact that a lot of the progress that both formats have made has been the result of competition. Had it not been for the fierce competition between both the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps, we probably wouldn’t have seen player prices get below $400 this quickly. We also might not have seen the same intense effort from studios cleaning up the quality of the film transfers (early Blu-Ray discs were notorious for their poor quality transfers.) And we also might not have seen this many high-def titles released “day and date” alongside their standard definition DVD versions. So, I guess the competition was healthy somewhat in helping to bring us lower cost players and better releases.

So now, the so-called “war” is over. After Toshiba (HD-DVD’s biggest champion) announced that they are no longer supporting the format, Blu-Ray was officially declared the winner. But what does this really mean? I’ve spent a few long bus rides thinking it over and I think that it means a lot less than people may realize.

Here are a few reasons why:

Fool Me Once, Shame on You. Fool Me Twice…. – I remember back in 1999 when I bought my first DVD player. (I’m embarrassed to admit how much I paid.) My first movie was Alien and I must have watched it about five times in two weeks. Man — looking at the quality of DVDs vs. non-digital cable television or VHS tapes at the time was amazing. So I bought a few more titles. It got addictive. Before I knew it, by 2006 I realized that I had amassed a collection of more than 350 titles (not discs…titles. Some titles have multiple discs).

Now, don’t get me wrong — I enjoy my collection. Wouldn’t dream of trading it. I appreciate the fact that I can just go over to the library and watch Ronin or The Godfather or Notting Hill or any other disc that I own on a whim without having to go to the store to rent or wait for it to come on television.

But the fact is that we’ve been here before. I’ve lived through several media switches. I remember looking at my LPs in disgust and deciding to move to the new hot thing — cassette tapes. Didn’t take long to figure out that cassettes were flawed and I moved on to CDs. And now it’s certainly the case that the majority of teens and young adults are “acquiring” their media through digital means…where the only limits are your disk space and how high you’re willing to encode your audio.

When it comes to movies, I was a fool again. Spent hours upon hours recording movies from television onto VHS tapes. (I wish I knew then what I know now). I even collected VHS tapes for awhile (but not nearly as many as my DVD collection).

And now, looking up at a wall of almost 400 unique movies (many of which I’ve only seen once — and some which embarrassingly I’ve never seen) I am sure that I’m not alone in taking a step back and considering how foolish yet another physical format purchase would be. (I know I’m not alone in looking at my collection and wondering what $15.99 times 350 would look like in my wallet. It doesn’t take a fortune teller to realize that if I can get a DVD quality download now, in five years I’ll be able to get a better-than-Blu-Ray quality movie via download.

You might have fooled me in the past, big studios…but you won’t get me this time.

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No Huge Perceptible Difference (In General) – While I don’t have a trained eye, I do consider myself to be somewhat of a ‘technology snob’. I scoff at people who claim to have a nice “entertainment center” yet at the center of it is a tube television. I run my PC monitor resolution at no less than 1280×1024 (right now 1600×1200, thankyouverymuch.) I encode all of my CDs digitally at no lower than 192 Kbps.

With that having been said, I have a confession to make: I can’t always tell the difference between an up-scaled DVD and the high definition version, either.

OK – I know I’m going to be shunned by all of the high-def lovers, but truthfully I can’t always tell the difference between up-scaled DVD and actual high definition DVD. And I’m sure that if the truth be told, many people are probably in the same boat. Only side-by-side comparisons make it easier. Show someone a good transfer DVD up-scaled on a high-quality display and I bet the average person would call it “high definition”. And the factors in determining what’s high def don’t end there. It depends on so many factors.

All of my videophile friends complain when we’re watching high-def cable together that the ‘artifacts’ and ‘blocking’ due to compression “hurt their eyes”. For me, I have to look really hard to see what they’re talking about. Most of the time, I’m so lost in the content of what I’m watching. So, I don’t see things like artifacts, blocking and I’ve never seen the ‘rainbow effect’ on rear projection DLP TVs. (And it’s probably better that way.)

My true point lies in this fact: If I am any indication of the average guy at Best Buy (and considering the fact that I am constantly correcting the staff when they give misinformation to customers, I’m probably not), then what about the rest of the consumers who don’t read Engadget HD or the AVS Forum? Will they notice this huge difference in quality? Given the random anecdotal data that I’ve acquired standing behind couples while they converse at Best Buy, it’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t.

Even bigger than the question of whether or not they’ll notice is the issue of whether the quality of their television will even give them the chance to notice the difference. Right now there are probably thousands of people who are sitting at home wondering why their brand new high definition television isn’t performing up to the level that it did in the store. That question has a host of answers. Everything from the fact that they may have just purchased a poor quality high definition monitor to the fact that they have a standard definition cable box to the fact that their television hasn’t been properly calibrated…and I can go on, and on and on.

All these factors lead to a heavily distorted view to the consumer about what exactly “high definition” really means.

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Cost – When it comes to tech, my budget is pretty flexible. I’d probably skip a few meals in exchange for a new toy. I’ve paid anywhere from five bucks all the way to almost $200 for a complete series set of DVDs. However, when given the choice between DVD and Blu-Ray, I’m not quite sure that I’m always willing to pay a third of the cost more. (Usually the choice is between around $15.99 and $27-34.99).

Because of the whole “Fool Me Once…” thing I talked about above, I’ve become a lot more shrewd in how I purchase my movies. I used to buy movies that I hadn’t seen at the drop of a hat. After a few bad experiences, buying stinkers that make me want sprint towards the toilet at the mere sight of the box art on my shelf, I don’t buy sight unseen quite so much anymore. And I have to believe that I’m not alone in this either. After years of high DVD sales, I’m sure people are starting to realize just how infrequently you actually watch these purchased movies. And now with High-Def DVD, at a cost premium? This time around, I have to believe that even among the hardcore DVD collectors that I used to stand in line with at J&R — each of us with a basket full of cinema — people simply aren’t going to buy at the rate that they did back then. (And certainly not at the higher price that High-Def movies have been positioned at.)

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More for Less??Speaking of cost, as the owner of about 18 Blu-Ray movies, I have to say that I have some mixed feelings about my purchases. Sure, the quality of movies like Casino Royale is amazing…but there are certainly some trade offs that I didn’t think I would have to consider. In more than a few instances, I’ve seen high-def movies released which contain less content and features than their standard definition components. Whoa. Hold on a minute. I don’t get it. I pay more money — but I get less features? Director’s commentaries, featurettes and other bonuses in DVD releases are often left out of their high-definition counterparts.

Part of me totally realizes the game that film studios are playing. DVDs are reaching the end-of-life cycle. So right now, studios are milking all that they can out of the format. “Special Edition” standard DVD versions are being released of almost every significant film. I’ve almost never seen “Special Edition High-Definition” versions of titles. I’m sure that the studios believe that they’re going to do now what they did to us last generation. They’ll sell us the same early release titles twice — perhaps three or more times — each time adding more features to draw us in. (“What’s that? You call yourself an ‘Indiana Jones fan’ and you don’t have the Ultra-Ultimate Edition with over an hour of unseen footage???”) And cost of buying titles multiple times is starting to become an issue….especially considering my next point…

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Alternatives – Back in 1999, the choice for our entertainment dollar as far as film was concerned was between television, movie theaters, a budding Internet and VHS tapes. Nowadays we have Tivo, Bittorrent downloads (including movies), Netflix, Xbox Live Marketplace (which offers high-definition rentals), the iTunes Store, and YouTube to name a few choices. There are other places you can go to check out a movie. Why buy the disc when you may only watch it a few times? And while the alternatives to Blu-Ray may not be up to the “1080P high-bitrate” standards of some, they meet the standards for most folks quite nicely. (Which is actually part of my next point….)

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Sometimes Standard Definition is “Good Enough” – When I want to go see Cloverfield or Transformers or Sin City 2 are released, it’s a sure bet that I’ll probably check them out in the theater and if I like them enough, maybe I’ll consider picking up the film on disc. But when it comes to films like American Gangster, Sicko, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men or just about any other drama where visual quality doesn’t take precedence over storyline and acting, DVD may not be the best…but it’s certainly “good enough”. Adding the ability to see the pores in the actor’s face don’t enhance the experience of some films all that much. I’d watch a DVD of a great drama (or even of an action movie) before I would decide to instead watch something else just because it was in high def.

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Flexibility – Thanks to innovations made in cracking DVD protection, most DVDs can easily be ripped and played on a laptop without need of the disc. (At that point the disc can be considered a “backup” for “safe keeping”.) Having begun the process of renting more high definition titles recently, I’m starting to realize that while my experience might be great, I just don’t have a practical way of ripping a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD disc to my hard drive. Even if I was able to rip a 25 – 50 GB Blu-Ray to my hard drive, would it even be practical at that point to store it? In the above mentioned cases where a drama or comedy’s value might not be greatly enhanced by watching it in high definition, I might even consider the DVD if given the choice. (OK, so I probably would make this choice only when renting from Netflix — and only sometimes — but it has definitely given me something to think about now that I’m watching more movies via my laptop and PSP on the road.)

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“Physical Media” is a Dying Trend – This year I’ve begun to “take back my living space” from the thousands of movies, CDs, audio cassettes, VHS tapes, and games on my PS1/PS2/Xbox Classic/ 360 /PS3 / NES /SNES / Nintendo64/ GameCube/ Genesis /Saturn/Dreamcast and several other gaming systems. With iTunes, I have begun to digitize my library and it’s been one of the best choices I’ve made. I’ve ripped and then stored away the audio media and it feels great. More space and, even better than that, I have the flexibility of finding any album or song by just typing a few letters of the name. It’s beautiful. Even video games are joining the party. Although the majority of games are sold on physical media, each next-generation console maker offers a download version of demos or games in some fashion.

I never thought movies would be the type of media that I would want stored on a hard drive, but I have a shared folder of “Films” that I keep on my host PC. At first, I just kept a couple of releases on it. But now I’ve reached a level of about 100 or so titles. And strangely, I find it really convenient. Ironically, I’m much more likely to re-watch films when I’m scrolling through the list of titles on my PS3. Like with music, it feels good to just bring up titles with very little effort…from hard drive to television screen in seconds.

All of the media companies are pointing in the direction of digital media. It’s inevitable. It’s what we need. If we could only find our way around the DRM issue, it would be perfect. Movies are no different from these other media like music and games. I’m looking forward to the day when all this stuff sits on my hard drive.

With each Blu-Ray disc that I pick up in the aisle at Best Buy, I stop and think about all the space I’ve reclaimed this year. “Is this movie worth the space on my shelf? Do I want to go back to another 300 titles of another format doomed to die someday?”

———————

Perhaps it is a good thing for consumers to have a unified choice when going to their local electronics store. And perhaps if enough people buy Blu-Ray discs, the cost will reach the “no brainer” level that some DVDs have reached; the level at which even if you can’t remember whether or not you already own the disc, you buy it anyway because at five bucks, how can you go wrong? But I see these issues pretty clearly most of the time and right now I’m having a hard time seeing Blu-Ray — with a PS3 SKU or not — doing anywhere near the business that DVDs did in the early part of the decade. From what I understand, across the board, DVDs and music sales are down from previous years. Some people may argue that today’s film and music releases just aren’t that compelling. Others might believe that all of the significant back title releases (Star Wars, Matrix, The Godfather, etc.) have already been released on standard def and the public isn’t willing to buy a higher quality format.

Regardless of the reasons behind slumping media sales now, I just don’t see Blu-Ray taking off and selling DVD-like numbers. There are far too many obstacles standing in it’s way. Not the least of which are a bunch of other choices. Just getting past HD-DVD was the first hurdle. Blu-Ray survived the physical media war. Now another battle awaits: the battle for overall movie format of choice. Right now I’d have to put my money on some downloadable online format gaining mass market appeal. All trends are pointing towards “computing in the cloud”. I can see the sweet spot being a high-definition Netflix-like offering at a much more competitive price than what Apple is currently charging in the iTunes Store. Only a few factors stand in the way of Apple (or any other company for that matter) delivering this compelling service. There are probably more, but I see three major factors: Certainly at the top of that list is “compromise” — between the technology companies like Microsoft, Apple or Netflix and the greedy film studios. Next on that list would be the need for faster bandwidth reaching the mainstream consumer. And the last factor is the one that I believe will bring all of this to pass. Time.

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3 Responses to “So the Format War is Over…. (or at least the physical format war)”


  1. February 24, 2008 at 1:57 am

    I liked your analysis regarding the physical format, but inevitably until the internet speed and the price for fiberoptic can be affordable to the majority of people, DVDs will still survive for another 4-5 years.

  2. February 28, 2008 at 10:39 am

    People are funny about packaged media, look at how hard its been for VOD to get some market share. The cable companies can give as much bandwidth as they want to delivering VOD or Internet, and yet they still dedicate the lions share to broadcasting TV shows.

    Blu-ray will at the very minimum end up like Laserdisc, a high end format for those who demand it. The reason why it has a better chance than LD is because the players are cheaper and the discs are interchangeable with the previous format. (LD players didn’t do VHS)

    Very soon (within 2 years) a Blu-ray player will cost the same as a DVD player and you won’t be able to buy a DVD player. So the only question of adoption that will remain is will people pay more for a movie on Blu-ray than DVD, when faced with the quality difference.

    I think they will and here’s why. The discernible difference between DVD and Blu-ray is much greater than the difference between 720p and 1080p and look how many absolutely refuse to buy a 720p TV despite costing about $400 more.

    Nice post, but I do have one correction. It’s Blu-ray and HD DVD, not Blu-Ray and HD-DVD.


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