Dvorak: Back-Catalog Movies May Settle DVD Format War

A point was made to me the other day regarding the rollout of HD titles using HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats.

The lackluster and fading contemporary movies currently being shown on the HD channels of Showtime and HBO are not going to boost sales of HD-DVD/Blu-ray devices. Rolling them out on disc in the new formats is not going to generate any interest. As others have pointed out, where are the classics?

In fact, if it weren't for Mark Cuban and the HDNet Movie channel, we'd never get to see any classics in HD whatsoever. I saw "Seven Days in May" over the weekend in HD. It was great!

Rolling out classics and already collected movies is the fastest way to grow the market. Anyone who has collected DVDs and has a few faves in their collection will want to replace them with the HD versions.

High-tech has always flourished using the upgrade-plus-replacement model for generating profits. But the model doesn't work if there is no rationale for people to upgrade to newer gear and replace their old media.

The transition from vinyl records to CDs took place quickly, within a few years. The quality of CDs was so much better that it forced an upgrade cycle, with millions of people replacing their old vinyl.

HD television is still a question mark with some people, because many do not realize that almost all the signals on broadcast TV are now in HD. Finally, Letterman and Conan and most late-night shows have switched to HD.

It's pretty hard to watch standard-definition TV once you see the same thing in HD. This is the equivalent of comparing old, scratchy vinyl records with clean-sounding CDs.

The only reason this upgrade/replacement cycle interests me is because the two competing HD disc formats will affect computer users soon. Will we be using an HD-DVD drive or a Blu-ray?

Some people see the possibility that a combination drive similar to the DVD "multi" players that some of us use will be the answer. If you have a multi DVD player, it pretty much can read and write to any DVD format. Some even can read and write to a DVD-RAM disk.

The HD/Blu-ray combination drive will have to write to every DVD technology as well as both HD-DVD and Blu-ray. It will take at least two years before such a drive can get down to commodity pricing.

And, at some point, one of these technologies will have to go. Redundancy in this market is silly.

I'm still predicting that Blu-ray will be the odd man out. It's simply too alien to the established technologies.

The real determining factor may simply be the manufacturability of blank discs. If you can find blank writable Blu-ray discs, they run about $20 a pop.

I have not seen blank HD-DVD discs, but the good news is that Verbatim reported last August that it could make the blanks on its normal DVD manufacturing line.

This has always been the key to the potential success of HD-DVD. With HD-DVD, you do not have to finance all new equipment to produce blank discs and prerecorded discs. You simply upgrade the DVD-manufacturing gear you already own. Of course, as the Blu-ray folks point out, this equipment upgrade isn't free, either.

Overlooked in all the debate are the rental stores. If they load up on all these new discs, then people may buy a drive if they happen to have HD gear. If the rental stores carry both Blu-ray and HD-DVD and the studios do both formats, then the winner will be the drive that is the cheapest. And that should be HD-DVD.

The potential fly in the ointment for this scenario could be the PlayStation 3 from Sony with its built-in Blu-ray player. If that skyrockets in popularity, then all bets are off.

So much fun!

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