Ulanoff: Blu-ray Is Doomed to Lose DVD Format War

Blu-ray is doomed.

I came to this conclusion shortly after reading John Dvorak's thoughtful dissection of the HD DVD versus Blu-ray imbroglio.

It was right on the money in all ways but one: Dvorak didn't anoint a winner; he thinks it'll take a couple of years to shake out.

I think he's wrong.

I didn't always feel this way about the high-def wars. HD DVD and Blu-ray are, in some ways, so similar that I assumed no self-respecting consumer would notice or care about the minute differences.

Both store, on a dual-layer disc, between 45 and 50 GB of data. Both will offer enhanced end-user interaction. Both, but especially Blu-ray, will offer improved content protection (no copies, please).

But as the fracture between the HD DVD-ites and Blu-ray-ees continued, I realized that consumers would be forced to make a choice.

Most of my coworkers and fellow tech watchers handicap the race at dead even.

Each technology has suffered its own series of setbacks and delays. The players are only just now arriving, and content is virtually nonexistent. They also see good chances for big HD content success because people have been buying HD TV sets for years, with little good content to play on them.

This is only partially true. While HD sets have been around for years, early devices were inordinately expensive, and HD TV stations began showing up only in the past two years.

I'd argue that 2005 was the breakthrough year for HD sets. So while demand for HD content may be pent up, there aren't that many consumers in the pen.

Late last month, Toshiba finally shipped the very first HD DVD drive. From what I hear, the first run was in the thousands. Those players disappeared almost instantly.

I guess those 10,000 consumers also bought all six of the HD DVD titles available from Warner and Universal. This does not sound like a resounding success.

But let's look at Blu-ray.

Sony's first players (from Samsung, Toshiba, and others) have yet to arrive. There still isn't even one publicly available Blu-ray content disc.

In mid-May, Sony announced that we wouldn't see any until late June. This is, ostensibly, to synchronize the release with the availability of those first players.

That's a pretty flimsy reason.

Warner is smart enough to know that it can sneak HD DVD content into the hands of consumers by burning it onto the back of regular DVD discs. Dvorak noted in his column that Blu-ray technology can't achieve this same feat (not without jumping through some significant technical hurdles).

Even so, the first HD DVD discs are not hybrids, so what's really holding back the Blu-ray content?

Perhaps Sony is stuck on the "chicken and egg" concept. Which comes first — the players or the content?

In a horse race like this, you take both the chickens and eggs and throw them at consumers. Holding anything back is a huge mistake on Sony's (and its partners') part.

Still, others expect Sony and Blu-ray to pull the rabbit out of the hat with one critical hardware release: The PlayStation 3.

As most people know by now, the PS3 will feature a built-in Blu-ray drive. It was originally slated for a spring ship, but was pulled back when Sony ran into Blu-ray delivery problems. Now we expect to see the eagerly anticipated gaming console in the fall.

Dvorak also made this point, but he's less certain of the PS3's success. I'm not.

The PS3 will be a blockbuster. Early supplies will sell out. And these gamers will, by default, get a brand new Blu-ray drive.

Gamers already expect a lot from their consoles, so the "extra interaction" Blu-ray offers may not mean much to them. But the PS3's success will not help Blu-ray win in the marketplace. This is because Sony's aiming at the wrong target audience.

HD DVD and Blu-ray will achieve success only if they reach critical mass in the general consumer marketplace.

The gaming market is not the general market. The vast majority of consumers who watch DVDs and even own HD sets are not 12- to 25-year-old die-hard gamers. Instead, they're 25- to 55-year-old adults with children who have better things to do than play games.

To be fair, HD DVD and Blu-ray both face a similar uphill battle; consumers are not itching to replace or upgrade their current DVDs or DVD players.

It will take a huge marketing and education effort to make consumers understand why they want either standard. Experiencing HD movies will help, but for the next two months, they'll be able to do this only with HD DVD.

In our lightning-fast, high-tech world, two months is like the first two lengths of a four-length horse race.

Can Blue-ray catch up? I don't think so.

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