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Ulanoff: Hybrids Won't Lure Consumers to High-Definition DVDs

Could the HD DVD vs Blu-ray wars end with a whimper instead of a bang?

It sounds like a distinct possibility now that Korean-based electronics manufacturer LG announced that it will unveil the world's first dual-format high definition disc player next week at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.

That's right, Blu-ray and HD DVD living in perfect harmony.

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It unclear right now if LG has the blessings of Blu-ray camp (Sony and its partners) or the HD DVD camps (Toshiba, Microsoft, et al), but the introduction of this drive could be good news for consumers and the movie industry, which has been scrambling to fill both format platforms with new content.

In addition, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, an early proponent of HD DVD and one of the first companies to offer dual format standard DVD/HD DVD discs is announcing Total Hi-Def (THD) discs at CES on January 9th.

These discs will reportedly play high-definition content in both HD DVD and Blu-ray formats and would, in theory, play on the new LG set-top player.

Most industry watchers believe all format supporters (like Warners) got little more than coal this holiday season, and consumers generally ignored the new set-top players from Sony, Samsung, and Toshiba.

There are laptops with the new players, and some burners as well, but it's too soon to project sales penetration on those.

LG offered few details on its planned dual-format player launch at the CES Show, but its press release does make the company's goals clear: "LG expects this technological breakthrough to end the confusion and inconvenience of competing high-definition disc formats for both content producers and consumers."

Expert Analysis:

Like a knight astride a white horse, galloping through the gloaming mist to our rescue, LG has, apparently, arrived to resolve the entire Blu-ray/HD DVD mess in one fell swoop.

But can this dual-format set-top player maker really end the pain, or is stronger action and greater cooperation really needed to undo what's already been done?

Let's look at the big picture.

When the freight train known as the 2006 holiday buying season roared through the technology market, HD DVD and Blu-ray stood mostly on the platform.

There were some first-generation set-top boxes, a ton of movie releases on both platforms, and even more encouragingly, laptops with the new-fangled high-def-burning drives.

Consumers, however, rode the train right on by. And at the time of this writing, the two factions are — LG's announcement not withstanding — no closer to a resolution than they were when the blue laser technologies were first introduced.

What a mess.

The most obvious solution would be for the HD DVD and Blu-ray consortiums to kiss, make up, and roll out a unified standard.

A Dell executive recently told me that the two sides had actually tried to talk through their differences, but the discussions proved fruitless and now no one talks about them getting together.

With no resolution in sight, PC manufacturers are aggressively rolling out HD DVD drives in some laptops and Blu-ray drive/burners in others.

This would be good news if the environment were completely different. Instead, there are so many flaws in this strategy that I can barely count them.

Chief among them is that, until Wednesday's announcement, the complete lack of multi-format drives.

When I told Dell that someone has to come out with an HD DVD/Blu-ray-capable drive, company reps told me that it would make systems too expensive and it's simply not something they would do.

I guess LG didn't get the memo. I'm not surprised that LG has taken the bull by the horns. When no one could make the warring DVD burner splinter groups agree, we started to see multi-format ("DVD +-/RW") drives in laptops and PCs.

It's a good thing LG is taking this first step, because dual-format drives may actually begin to show up in PCs. This is the only way most consumers will ever be exposed to the much-ballyhooed HD disc experience.

Blu-ray and HD DVD proponents have both pigeonholed me and talked ad-nauseam about all that consumers can do with these new content-rich discs. The Blu-ray disc for the movie "Click!" has nearly 50 GB of data on it — it basically maxes out a multi-layer Blu-ray disc.

With what? I have no idea. It wasn't that good of a movie to begin with and I don't want to see hundreds of hours of extras.

However, the real benefit of these new formats is supposed to be that you can add to your movie watching experience even after you've bought the disc. New trailers can be downloaded and so can enhanced interaction, and even — oh joy! — new commentaries.

The critical flaw here is that consumers don't care.

Thanks to up-scaling standard DVD players, they're loving the way their current DVD collection looks on their new HD sets. They're happy with their current DVD extras, and since most of them do not have the necessary Internet connection near the HDTV, they'll never see the HD DVD and Blu-ray extra extras anyway.

This is not the way to sell consumers on these new formats.

Toshiba, Sony, Dell and others are all quite pleased that they've managed to ship systems with these new optical format drives. I really don't know why.

Consumers stiff-armed the HD DVD and Blu-ray set-top boxes in 2006 and they'll likely do the same to systems like Dell's pricey Dell XPS M1710 (with a dual-layer capable Blu-ray drive).

For one thing it's $1,300 more than the most expensive current XPS. Is the Blu-ray experience worth all that?

These formats face an uphill battle in the business market, too. They're touted as an amazing data archive option. More than once I've heard someone talk about how "one 40 GB hard drive can be backed up to a single optical disc."

I wouldn't burn 50 GB of data on a Blu-ray disc right now if someone paid me. What am I going to do with that disc? I can't find another laptop with a Blu-ray drive — no one will have one. I have no confidence that someone else will not buy a laptop with a competing format.

And what if Blu-ray fails? What if HD DVD fails? One of the formats just goes away and I'm left with a lousy coaster.

LG's plans offer the tiniest ray of hope that consumers and businesspeople will not have to make any of these awful choices. This new drive could be the first step on the long road to dual-format drive nirvana.

I would prefer a single unified format — I think everyone would — but for now, I'm not going to push LG off that white horse.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.