Dvorak: Consumers Lose in DVD Format War

By the end of this year, we'll see exactly which next-generation optical media will be on our desktop computers. Or will we?

The possibility lurks that the final resting place for next-generation media will not be determined for a couple of years. During that time, HD DVD and Blu-ray will fight it out in the consumer market, leaving computer users to languish.

There are a couple of interesting variables in this emerging battle, and the market reaction to them may determine the final outcome.

The most important event to watch may be the bundling of Blu-ray with the Sony PlayStation 3. But this device may have issues and may not become the fabulous success predicted.

Also, the HD DVD folks have recently come up with a unique gambit.

If you buy a new DVD from Warner Home Video, you may get a HD DVD on the other side of the disc.

This is very doable with the HD DVD format: The reflective data layer is deep inside the plastic, so it's easy to make a reversible disc. In fact, the same stamping equipment is used for both technologies, making the process even easier.

Not so with Blu-ray. Stamping out this combination product (DVD and Blu-ray) would take very specialized equipment.

Whatever tricks the marketers pull out of the hat won't make much difference if one of these formats doesn't take off faster than the other. Otherwise all the potential licensing profits are going to be lost to special deals and promotions, so both formats are losers for a long time.

I suspect this will happen, since the upgrade pattern has a rocky road ahead.

The HD formats will not go the way of the record business, where people repurchased their entire vinyl collection to get the better-sounding CDs. This gave the music business windfall profits that it still enjoys two decades later.

In fact, you have to wonder if people will upgrade any of their current DVD collections. I seriously doubt it.

I don't think too many people upgraded their VHS collection to DVDs, either. Movies aren't like music, where you can listen to the same songs over and over. Most people are not rewatching "Groundhog Day" over and over.

And many people upgraded their vinyl collection because the vinyl wore out. DVDs do not wear out. Furthermore, the line-doubling DVD players often provide a credible substitute for HD, negating the absolute need for an HD version of the movie.

New content will be what drives the HD disc sales, so there will be no windfall for the vendors. In fact, this changeover will probably cost everyone a lot of money. Of course they'll blame any losses on "bootlegging" and piracy. That should be good for a laugh.

Meanwhile the computer users are going to have to decide what to do. Dell has chosen to use Blu-ray, and these drives will come on some computers.

But most of these big companies added the now-dead ZIP drives to their machines, too. Remember that dead end?

I'm not in the mood to begin to move my photos from DVD-R discs to either one of these two new formats unless I know that the formats are going to survive.

I definitely cannot see Blu-ray and HD DVD living side by side the way DVD-R and DVD+R have done.

For one thing, among the competing DVD technologies, the combination drives work and their intercompatibility is high (except for the R/W DVD technologies). The difference between Blu-ray and HD DVD is extreme.

Now the big question: If you had to pick one of these two formats today, which would it be?

Can you pick the one that isn't going to become dead media? Are you going to have to worry, ten years from now, that the drive coming off the assembly line is the last one being built? Are you going to have to buy it to transfer all your data from that dead media onto some new format — or onto the other format that you didn't pick in the first place?

Quite simply, these are choices consumers do not want to make. And it's beginning to look as if certain licensing restrictions that prevent the popularization of combination drives are making the situation intolerable.

I'm afraid we're witnessing a train wreck. It looks as if we'll be sticking with our old DVD-writable drives for quite a while longer if something doesn't change fast.

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