Is Steve Jobs right on Blu-ray and HDMI?

  • Analyst Opinion - Steve Jobs has called a number of trends before they started but also missed on a couple. For instance, the market never understood the one-button-mouse-thing.  However, I do think they may have a potential winner with their no-button track pad because it applies what has been learned from the iPhone to the laptop.  Looking back, Apple has probably led in hardware more than any other single company in terms of big moves. But what is up with the decision to ignore Blu-ray?

    In terms of financial performance, at least in recent years, Apple is a money-making machine and it’s hard to argue with that kind of success.  Their best recent move was to take Nvidia graphics across their laptop line, which finally brings Apple laptop graphics performance in line with its promise.
    Currently, Apple is signaling a move away from optical altogethe, ignoring Blu-ray and jumping to DisplayPort over HDMI for their laptops. This comes at a time when Blu-ray forecasts have never been stronger and there are more monitors and TVs with HDMI interfaces, probably by several magnitudes, than there are with DisplayPort interfaces.  So, did Steve Jobs get it right, or is he taking his company and customers down a dead end street?

    While I’d probably make the same move with Blu-ray, I’m not as sure about HDMI.

    Blu-ray on the PC is a disaster

    I have Blu-ray drives myself on one notebook and four desktop PCs. On the notebook, it pulls so much power that I can’t actually get through a movie on battery and must plug the system into a power outlet. The video quality on the 15” isn’t much better than a regular DVD and isn’t worth the effort. Add inn the limited selection of Blu-ray movies and you are beginning to have wonder why you should bother at all. I rarely have a Blu-ray movie from Netflix that I want to watch on a plane in any case.
    On the laptop, I generally use the optical bay for a spare battery anyway these days and typically watch videos from the hard drive.  I can easily carry more of them and don’t have to worry about scratching or losing the DVDs.   
    Most PCs aren’t connected to TVs and watching a Blu-ray movie on a monitor instead of a big screen, even if it’s a 24” or 27” monitor, just seems silly. I generally use my PS3 rather than even my Media Center with Blu-ray, because the PC sometimes struggles with the initial rendering of the Blu-ray image on my big screen and the PS3 boots faster. Blu-ray looks nice on a big screen but the experience is simply vastly better with a deck or PlayStation than it is with a PC - desktop or laptop.  

    I could see using the laptop with the increasingly common flat screen TV in a hotel room, but then I’d have to bring a cable and often the Hotel TV seems to have placed the HDMI ports in places where it is nearly impossible to get to them. Then I’d need to bring a laptop remote so I didn’t have to keep getting up to manipulate the movie and the aggravation just doesn’t seem worth the effort.
    Once you get away from entertainment: You can put much greater amounts of information on a small magnetic drive more quickly and Blu-ray blanks are simply too expensive to use regularly.  In addition, few have Blu-ray readers on their PCs, so it is easier to use a memory stick or small magnetic drive to move large files as well.  Other than the bragging rights of saying you have a Blu-ray drive, it just isn’t very practical on a PC.  

    From a strategic standpoint, Apple is heavily invested in iTunes movie and TV downloads and not invested at all in optical anything. This alone would suggest that Blu-ray would be a silly move unless there was a massive customer opportunity.

    So, while others disagree, I think Steve is right on Blu-ray.

    Read on the next page: A different scenario: HDMI on notebooks

    A different scenario: HDMI on notebooks

    There is no doubt that DisplayPort is a better interface in terms of pure throughput than HDMI is.   However, HDMI has some really distinct advantages when it comes to ease of setup and penetration. It is on virtually every HDTV currently shipping and it exists on a number of monitors as well. For instance, I just started using Dell’s Crystal Monitor, which only has an HDMI connection: One plug enables both the monitor and the built in speakers, creating an easy and clean connection.
    If the product is a workstation class product that needs the extra resolution headroom that DisplayPort provides and you have a source of DisplayPort monitors (which Apple has), then I can see that as the direction.  But a laptop typically uses its native display as a primary display and may be hooked to something like a projector or a TV for presentations. Here you are more likely to see an HDMI port than a DisplayPort interface and I think you have to consider the usage model when you make the port choice.

    For now I think that if you are building a business notebook, you would still go with VGA, because that remains the most common interface on installed projectors. HDMI is the second choice for conference rooms that are using TVs or hotel Rooms, which are often used for briefings. Consumers - if they are downloading iTunes video content on their laptops - will more likely want to display videos on a TV than a monitor and both can deal with a dongle connected to a DisplayPort monitor more easily than having to carry a dongle for their laptop.
    While Apple, or anyone else who does DisplayPort monitors, could favor DisplayPort for desktop PCs on laptops, HDMI makes more sense since it results in a potentially less complex user experience.   

    Wrapping Up

    If I were given an equal choice, I’d pick a notebook with an HDMI port over one with a DisplayPort interface and would avoid the Blu-ray option, even if offered as an option. If you choose Apple, Apple is making these choices for you and it is interesting to note that without HDMI, Blu-ray wouldn’t work for movies anyway on an external screen. You can get a DisplayPort to HDMI cable but it won’t transmit sound, making the TV result ugly and creating a scenario that is the opposite of Apple’s typical focus on user experience.
    I think Steve Jobs and Apple got it right with Blu-ray, but wrong on HDMI given where Apple’s focus has historically been.  

    Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.