HD-DVD & Blu-Ray: Dead Formats Walking

Opinion: The new high-def DVD formats now coming on the market are in big trouble, but you won't hear that from Hollywood or by way of the technology makers. Instead of the biggest technology introduction ever, it could be one huge fiasco for optic

Much digital ink has been spilled over the high-definition DVD format war between the Blu-Ray camp (including Sony, Dell and a group of "content" providers) and supporters of the HD-DVD disc (including Microsoft, Toshiba and another group of "content" providers). Over the Easter weekend, the first consumer HD-DVD players and titles hit the shelves and were quickly sold out.

But for widespread acceptance, both of these optical formats may be heading toward life support before theyve even made it to the market. One big reason: Think green.

There are no widespread programs to recycle CD and DVD media, despite the growing use by consumers and businesses. This is true even here in the environmentally conscious San Francisco Bay Area.

Now, there are some local groups that will accept the discs as well as national companies such as GreenDisk, based in Sammamish, Wash. The latter organization will accept media but for a price.

But these discs are a pending environmental problem, since many millions of discs are consumed annually by content providers and consumers.

Perhaps five or six years ago, I saw an Environmental Protection Agency poster about the lifecycle of optical media that claimed an estimated 100,000 pounds of obsolete optical media goes into the trash every month. It must be more now with the increased use of digital cameras and video DVDs.

However, the weak support for recycling optical media is understandable, since most of the effort in recent years has been toward more toxic equipment: electronic devices such as televisions and media players as well as computers. Currently pending in California is legislation that will reconcile the states rules with the European Union ROHS Directive. Similar rules will move across the country.

The situation on the recycling of optical media is due for a change. There are moves to wrap discs in the toxic regulations surrounding cell phones and other electronic ephemera such as batteries.

For example, an April 14 report in the Recycling News blog, the Environmental Protection Administration in Taiwan will be enforcing fines for folks not correctly recycling optical media and cell phones. The fine is up to $184.

So, over the next several years, we can expect optical media to carry some kind of recycling surcharge and greater rules for their disposal. Just as weve seen the enforcement of recycling requirements for batteries recently stepped up, the rules will apply more to businesses and enterprises initially, just as the battery regulations were implemented.

As this future green toll on media hits, it will act as a breakwater on the adoption of the next-generation discs. Of course, this is just one of the many barriers the formats face.

Currently most potential customers are concerned about investing in either technology. The industry is split into camps, and neither format has received a vote from all content distributors. Meanwhile, the higher-priced Blu-Ray drives are delayed for later this summer. Its all bait for the early adopter.

Of course, the content providers and DVD player manufacturers expect sky-high adoption rates for the high-def player, since the formats will arrive on a variety of devices, such as media computer systems, set-top boxes and game systems. According to a Video Business report, Warner studio executives expect sales of 500,000 stand-alone HD DVD and Blu-Ray players, up to 3 million game consoles, and as many as 4 million computer drives. This would put the total base for high-def formats between 4.5 million and 7.5 million users.

Dream on. The drives may come with the systems, but will consumers want to come to the content party?

The transition from one installed base to another usually takes a long time. Unlike the initial DVD introduction, which faced minimal (nil) competition from VHS tape, consumers already have a well-understood, reliable and inexpensive digital format for content and recording: DVD itself.

The adoption rate of DVD was very quick, with sales of 300K units over the first nine months following the introduction of the players in 1997. But that just shows how old and tired the VHS tape format was in its latter days.

Will anyone but early adopters purchase (or repurchase) video titles for the high resolution and pay the extra bucks for the privilege? And some content, such as collections of vintage television programs, will benefit only marginally from the extra resolution.

Just look at the list of HD-DVD titles under discussion: "Serenity," "The Last Samurai" and "The Phantom of the Opera" are available now. Coming soon in order of release: "Million Dollar Baby" "Apollo 13," "Doom," Jarhead," "Cinderella Man," "Assault on Precinct 13," "The Chronicles of Riddick," "The Bourne Supremacy," "Van Helsing" and "U-571."

Come on! Im a genre fan, but the "Van Helsing" movie? Terrible. No amount of resolution will save that film or make it worth watching once or buying it again.

Finally, add downloading to the adoption picture for HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats. While the industry has continued a long fight over formats and DRM—delaying the technologies arrival on the market—consumers have gained confidence with the benefits of downloading audio and now video files with TiVo video players and the Apple iPod.

Instead of moving to new DVD formats, consumers will purchase licenses to download the high-definition titles to a media server. The files are big but not that big. And storing files on a remote server is the greener alternative!

Despite its slim capacity, plain ol DVD will exist for a long while. But in a short while, just a couple of years, the network will be the king of high-def. And that adoption curve will put DVDs to shame.


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