Redmond (WA) – On Monday, while some may have been writing “advance obituaries” in case Toshiba ended up delaying the HD DVD rollout into oblivion, the technology that some analysts described as “on the ropes” began staging a Muhammad Ali-like comeback in its battle against Blu-ray, with Microsoft and Intel joining the HD DVD Promotions Group.
But a promotions group is different from a standards group, where technologies are proposed, tested, and debated. While some began interpreting Microsoft’s move as yet another way to assume command of an industry standard, as Tom’s Hardware Guide learned yesterday, its motivations and Intel’s may actually be quite different. As Jordi Ribas, Microsoft’s director of technology strategy for Windows Digital Media, told us yesterday, Microsoft would very much welcome the development of a unified, high-definition video disc standard – one which isn’t necessarily HD DVD or Blu-ray, but also one which doesn’t fail the criteria Ribas listed for us in Part 1 of our exclusive interview yesterday evening.
“Toshiba and Sony discussed this possibility a few months ago, but the problem is that the structures of the discs are so different that it’s very difficult to find a compromise,” related Ribas. “So it looks unlikely. We do remain hopeful, though, and we will continue to work with both sides.” Companies on both sides of the argument, he said, are partners of Microsoft, implying that Microsoft may very well be the common bond joining them all. “So we will continue to talk,” he added, “and eventually, we do hope that some sort of unification [comes about], so that there is a single format [that] would be best for everybody. At the same time, we want to make sure such a single format meets the requirements that will make the format succeed in the market.”
Six of Intel’s and Microsoft’s requirements which the two companies felt Blu-ray did not meet, but HD DVD did, were listed in our story yesterday.
However, a larger challenge looms before both Blu-ray and DVD, added Ribas – larger than simply finding a way to come together, or else gracefully bow out and let the other side lead. The next generation of DVD has big competition already, he said, in the current generation of DVD: “If you think about this, DVD is a very successful format, the consumers love it,” he remarked. “So the only way we can succeed to ensure that consumers move to an HD generation format, is that if we give them compelling reasons to do so.”
Those reasons must not be merely incremental, but generational. As Joe Wilcox, senior analyst with Jupiter Research, phrased it in an interview with Tom’s Hardware Guide, “It has to do with how much better the new thing is than what people already have. There’s a threshold of ‘good enough.’ Once you achieve that threshold, then the next new thing has to be so much better for people to move to it.”
As Ribas pointed out, “The way we feel now, even if the whole industry went behind Blu-ray, without these features, it seems very difficult for mass adoption to happen.” Disc replication machines need to be capable of producing existing and new formats, he said, as well as hybrid discs that allow customers to invest in high-def content today, even if they’re holding back to purchase a high-def player in the future. No unification would be accepted by the consumer, he said, unless “we make sure these factors are considered.
“Whatever combination it is,” Ribas added, “as long as these requirements are met, I think our company would be excited to see a unification. But again, there’s got to be authorized copy, hybrid [discs], low-cost replication as well as [low-cost] playback systems, high capacity, and best interactivity. So if this list is met by whatever unified standard is decided, then we’ll be very happy to support that.”
Broadband could replace need for HD discs
Jupiter’s Joe Wilcox believes that, whatever the outcome of the battle, the victor or victors may find themselves having arrived too late for the party. “The greater implication is, none of this means anything,” he told us. “Right now, it doesn’t matter which format wins, because the consumer market isn’t ready for high-definition DVD.” He pointed out that neither side is ready to ship high-def players today; meanwhile, existing channels for high-def content have picked up customers at lower than anticipated rates. “So if people aren’t picking the low fruit from the tree,” Wilcox asked, “how are you going to get them to plant a new tree and grow some more fruit?”
Microsoft’s Ribas foresees a day when Wilcox’s question is moot. A day may come, he believes – perhaps in three years, perhaps ten –when the whole issue of disc-based video will have faded into history, and a majority of consumers will be receiving their multimedia content on demand through a broadband pipeline. At that time, he said, it will become important that studios and content providers have a clear migration path to transfer their existing video content to an on-demand system. Here, it’s important to note that Ribas is co-engineer of the Windows Media Video 9 (WMV9) codec, which is vying to become a cross-platform SMPTE encoding standard later this year, joining MPEG-4.
“A lot of us may agree that, ten years from now, we would see maybe even optical media going away,” Ribas projected. “Then, the vision we have is that the content would be delivered via Internet or via broadband lines of any type. That will be very convenient for the user to get video-on-demand, and just get any type of content that they want…at their fingertips. That’s where the industry’s headed. I think ten years from now, it’s going to be very, very common that online distribution, or video-on-demand distribution, will dominate.
“Now, when are we going to start seeing the crossover?” Ribas continued. “It’s hard to tell. I do think that both efforts will continue in parallel, and between now and ten years from now, I think that optical media will have a clear role…We do hope that, the earlier, the better, because that will be easier for the consumer and a better experience.”
Since its inception, Microsoft has been a principal member of the DVD Forum, the standards group responsible not only for the current DVD standard, but for HD DVD. Beginning Monday evening, reports circulated that Microsoft and Intel had “joined the DVD Forum;” we responded by saying they had not. Perhaps I might have been clearer by stating they were already members. But since last June and up until last week, Microsoft spokespeople had repeatedly reminded us that Microsoft’s membership in the DVD Forum was not to be construed as tacit support for HD DVD, or as an indication that Microsoft had directly contributed to the standard itself. Yesterday, Ribas told us that Microsoft contributed to the iHD interactivity layer and the VC-1 codec, both of which have been adopted by HD DVD, but which were also offered to Blu-ray; the latter rejected iHD but embraced VC-1. Still, it’s clear that Toshiba, not Microsoft, is the technology leader for HD DVD, and will continue to be.
But Microsoft indeed has its own interests at heart – just perhaps not the ones some might think. Microsoft was a principal player in brokering the 1996 agreement between Toshiba’s SD format group and Sony and Philips’ MMCD format group, that led to the creation of today’s DVD. The company could conceivably play that role again. But the payoff may be to help ensure the survival of a video encoding standard beyond the maximum projected life cycle of high-def DVD.
Ribas told us that maintaining at least one unified codec for disc and broadband encoding is very important in the near term “because there is cost associated with the studios having to re-author and re-encode the content.” But as the disc era begins to wane – a possibility which Microsoft apparently perceives more as actuality — then if broadband encoding were to have migrated to a different format by that time, Ribas fears, studios and content providers would be faced with the re-mastering problem again. In the meantime, existing high-def DVD players will already have been shipped with the older codec, and may not be upgradable.
MPEG-2 has had a 10- to 12-year lifespan as the primary video encoding standard, Ribas said, so it is reasonable to expect the next standard to last at least that long after its introduction, perhaps as soon as next year. Meanwhile, MPEG-2 will continue to be a factor for the next 10 years, he added. So the next encoding standard could possibly have a very significant impact not only on the next generation of video, but the next generation of people: “Maybe it’s not going to be 20 years,” Ribas told us, “but for the next 10 years or so, I think will have a strong impact on the industry.” At that time, the issue of little round discs as a medium for digital content, may very well have become an historical anecdote.