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DVD Format Wars

Everyone loves DVD. Most big-screen TVs sold nowadays are HDTVs. So you?d think a high-definition version of the DVD format would a natural­splashing a sharper and more detailed picture onto a screen that can show the difference.
 
Yet high-definition DVD remains stuck at the starting gate. The reason is yet another self-destructive format war from a consumer electronics industry that seems incapable of learning the lessons of its own history. Who will win the high-def DVD sweepstakes­HD-DVD or Blu-ray?
 
HD-DVD is backed by Toshiba and NEC. Toshiba was a prime mover behind the existing DVD format. The Blu-ray Disc Founders Group (BDFG) includes Hitachi, HP, LG (Zenith), Matsushita (Panasonic), Mitsubishi, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp, TDK, Thomson (RCA)­and especially Sony, which has offered a Blu-ray recorder for some time, albeit in Japan and at a stiff price.

HD-DVD has been endorsed by the DVD Forum, a consortium whose purpose is to keep the DVD format from descending into chaos. But for the sheer bulk of corporate supporters, Blu-ray has an edge.

Besides political muscle, Blu-ray has the added advantage of being recordable. However, it?s hobbled by the fragility of the disc, which must be enclosed in a caddy, much like Sony?s MiniDisc. BDFG member TDK is developing a coating technology that would give the disc a harder and more durable surface.

Have I mentioned that the governments of China and Taiwan both have high-definition DVD formats of their own in development? Taiwan alone has two!

So what exactly is going on here? What?s the reason for this format fiasco? I?ve got two little words for you: licensing revenues. Every time an electronic product gets sold, someone, somewhere gets paid. The manufacturer isn?t the only one who profits. Whoever developed the underlying technology (or technologies)  also does.

The licensing fee may constitute only a small part of the product?s overall cost. But multiply it by millions (or hundreds of millions) of products rolling off assembly lines around the world and you?ll have a general idea of why every manufacturing player in the CE industry wants to be a format-licensing player as well.

Format wars are nothing new. They?ve been going on since Thomas Edison?s cylinder phonograph lost out to Alexander Graham Bell?s flat disc?the forerunner of today?s many flat disc formats.

The most notorious format war of recent times was Beta vs. VHS. Videophiles swore Sony?s Betamax was better, citing the elegance of its U-load mechanism over VHS?s clunky M-load, but the VHS people were wilier. Prodded by its U.S. licensee RCA, Matsushita/JVC made VHS the first consumer videocassette format to record for a movie-length two hours. By the time Sony added slower speeds to the Beta format, it was too late.

Another notable format war from the same era was the laserdisc (or as it was originally known, LaserVision) vs. the CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc). Pioneer was the corporate champion of LD while CED was an ambitious effort by RCA, already doing well in VHS VCRs, to generate licensing revenue from videodiscs. For awhile they were in a dead heat, but in the end, the high-end videophile public chose the laser-read LD over the stylus-read, caddy-enclosed CED, which some derided as ?needlevision.?

RCA lost tens of millions of dollars on the CED and, in the process, its independence. The once proud company was sold first to General Electric, then to Thomson of France, and most recently has become a partner of the Chinese giant TCL. The RCA brand is still a major presence in the U.S. marketplace, and RCA has a glorious history?having had a significant hand in developing and/or popularizing the current analog television standard, FM radio, the DirecTV satellite system, and the quarter-inch jack that festoons your a/v components?but it has not flown an independent banner for quite some time.

Meanwhile, Sony lost none of its zest for developing new formats. Its MiniDisc more or less won over Philips? Digital Compact Cassette during the 1990s. Both used early versions of compressed digital audio. DCC was backward-compatible with the analog cassette format, but the MiniDisc was cooler and more mechanically reliable, and became popular in Japan. In the States both were eclipsed by the nascent CD-R.

The latest Sony format gladiator is the Super Audio CD, rival to the DVD-Audio (as opposed to the more common DVD-Video) format. Both support surround sound and provide higher sound quality than the CD. Both come packaged with DVD-Video players (though there are a few SACD-only players out there). Not all SACD players support DVD-Audio; by the same token, there are some DVD-Audio players that don?t support SACD.

If you want to hear Pink Floyd?s Dark Side of the Moon in high-res surround, you?ll need an SACD-compatible player. If you want to hear Living Colour?s Collideøscope in high-res surround, you?ll need something with DVD-Audio capability. If you want a player that can handle both, there are so-called universal players from Apex, Denon, Integra, Onkyo, Pioneer, Yamaha, and Zenith, among others.

If you want all this to stop, you?re screwed.

Occasionally format peace breaks out. RCA?s 45 rpm record happily coexisted with CBS?s 33 rpm LP for decades. People bought singles on 45s and longform recordings on LPs (which stands for Long Playing record).

A more recent exception to the rule has been the DVD-Video format, the one you rent movies on at Blockbuster. DVD nearly fell victim to a format war between Toshiba and its partners and Sony and its partners. Luckily for DVD?and for us?Warner Home Video?s Warren Lieberfarb stepped in between the warring factions.

As an admiring profile on MS-NBC puts it: ?He cajoled, strong-armed and bargained with industry players around the world to set aside their parochial interests and sign on to a universal standard for the new format.? Today, it?s Lieberfarb?not Toshiba or Sony?who?s remembered as ?the father of DVD.? Under the compromise he brokered, Toshiba, Sony, and various other players share format licensing revenue from DVD.

More important, the entire consumer electronics industry benefits from the unified format. Filmmakers benefit too?a lot of movies simply wouldn?t get made if it weren?t for the prospective revenue stream from DVD release?and of course Hollywood studios love DVD because it adds millions to their bottom lines. (?Not that there?s anything wrong with that,? as they used to say on Seinfeld.

But the happiest beneficiaries are you and me. DVD enables us to collect films in a format with a better picture, better surround sound, and more durability than we ever enjoyed with VHS (or Beta).

Given the proven popularity of DVD, and the proven benefits of cooperative format development, it?s all the more frustrating that a unified high-definition DVD format hasn?t emerged. Where is the next Warren Lieberfarb? Who will broker the peace agreement that will bring a high-def DVD format safe enough to invest in to a public that?s already bought millions of HDTVs?

That statesman has yet to step forward. So we wait, and what we?re waiting for may be yet another confusing format war. These corporations, they?re worse than the Republicans and the Democrats?and that?s pretty bad!

So, what dead formats do you have sitting in the back of your closet? And are you as eager for high-definition DVD as I am?

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Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

*Edited 1/10/05 – We found a serious error which has been corrected. Originally we stated that HD DVD uses a red laser which is incorrect, it uses a blue laser like Blu-ray. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.