Opinion: Blu-ray not even close to winning format war

Posted by Mark Raby

Columbus (OH) - We're soon approaching the one year anniversary of each format, and despite the extrapolated outlook for Blu-ray based on where it stands now, there is no end in sight.  A climb in Blu-ray movie sales may lead consumers to believe Sony has already beaten HD DVD, but nothing could be further from the truth.
 


HD DVD players for 2007 ...

Blu-ray players for 2007 ...


When I first heard about Blu-ray and HD DVD at the tail end of 2005, my gut reaction was that both formats would flop within a couple years.  I imagined that no one would be so easily persuaded to start passing the torch from DVD.

Instead, the two formats have gained name recognition and healthy amounts of shelf space from every big box retailer.  I guess I underestimated the explosion of the popularity in and obsession with high definition.  Anyway, it has turned into a full-on, fists-out guerilla war, and it's enough to make even the strongest tech heads a little dizzy.

Earlier this week, the HD DVD promotional group announced the mark of the 100,000th player to be sold, a number it took DVD players over two years to reach. However, Blu-ray is magnitudes above that, led chiefly by the PS3. It also continues to take huge leads over HD DVD in terms of movie sales. In fact, today, a Nielsen group that tracks the sales released March figures, putting Blu-ray movies at a 2-to-1 advantage over HD DVD for the third consecutive month. Because of this, some have begun to declare Blu-ray the winner.
 
Format wars are always ugly sights.  Consumers are tricked into thinking the latest and greatest rotating media will revolutionize everything, only to look back three years later and find it in the anique section of eBay.  If it's not obvious this is experience talking, maybe I should post a picture of my substantial laserdisc collection.

We saw the exact same thing with Sony's proprietary PSP disc known as UMD.  Practically every top studio leaped onto that bandwagon, following a short-lived surge in the portable format.  Sony sent press release after press release boasting about sales figures.  Today, the company is seemingly under a voluntary gag order to not even mention UMD movies because sales flattened practically overnight.  Blu-ray has an eerily similar feel to it.  There are, without a doubt, a number of people who bought a PS3 and are testing out the Blu-ray movie player as a novelty.  The PS3 counts for more than 75% of all BD players that have been sold, and when this novelty wears off for the non-enthusiasts, it may not be on such an elevated playing ground anymore.

Sony's history with new formats is well documented.  Betamax, Super Audio CD, Write-Once optical discs, Super Density discs, Magneto-optical discs, and a handful of others, have all come out of Sony's offices.  You can count the number of these that turned out to be big successes by, well, doing absolutely nothing.  The answer is zero.  Sony's record in format wars is bad, real bad.  I don't think that just because over 100,000 people are watching James Bond in high definition on Casino Royale Blu-ray, Sony can declare itself the winner.

Sure, HD DVD has a long way to go to re-establish itself, but it is still out there in a big way.  Looking back at history, movie studios have jumped ship from formats, fads have died off with the snap of a finger, and there's always the chance for a unpredictable surprise that changes the game entirely.  It's all happened before, and the fact that this format war is so highly publicized just makes every shift so crucial.  It'll be at least another year before we know for sure who has the permanent upper hand.