Fort Collins (CO) – In response to Microsoft’s and Intel’s joint announcement on Monday that they had joined the HD DVD Promotions Group, citing six of what they consider failures of rival Blu-ray high-definition video disc technology, an engineer for Blu-ray proponent HP, who is close to the standards process for the Blu-ray Disc Association, is claiming Intel and Microsoft have been extensively misled, and are spreading misleading information about Blu-ray Disc.
“I think there’s some misinformation being spread about the Blu-ray Disc format,” Josh Peterson, director of strategic alliances for HP’s Optical Storage Solutions group, told Tom’s Hardware Guide. HP is an outspoken member of the Blu-ray Disc Association, and an active participant in building standards for that format. “Certainly, Microsoft and Intel carry big brand presence,” Peterson added, “but we don’t really feel that their support of either format is really going to change the landscape with respect to hardware availability in the marketplace, or the consumer choice…when products are on the shelf next year.”
That choice, Peterson believes, will indeed be whether to purchase either HD DVD or Blu-ray high-definition players, as both formats will probably be simultaneously available in North America and other markets. It’s not a situation he’s looking forward to, but at least for the near term, Peterson is resigned to it: “Unfortunately, it looks like that’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “But I think that the choice will be very clear.”
Microsoft’s and Intel’s interest in this matter, Peterson argues, are limited, since they don’t manufacture the drives or the devices that include them (one possible exception being a future incarnation of Xbox 360, though Microsoft states early editions will not include high-def DVD). The major PC brands will sway consumers’ decisions, he believes, and those brands are HP and Dell, both of whom are Blu-ray proponents.
Perhaps never in their respective histories have HP and Microsoft been so at odds about any technology; today, the two companies are considered close partners, especially in the development of features for Windows Vista. “Every relationship has its bumps,” said Peterson, “and obviously we have a strong disagreement here.”
One of the more glaring elements of this emerging disagreement concerns the issue of disc capacity. BD-ROM currently claims a theoretical maximum of 50 GByte. But on Monday, the Microsoft/Intel joint statement alleged that Blu-ray discs had only demonstrated thus far a physical BD-ROM capacity of 25 GByte, as Microsoft engineer Jordi Ribas – one of that company’s representatives to the DVD Forum -stated in his exclusive interview with Tom’s Hardware Guide.
In our interview with HP’s Peterson, he called Ribas’ claim “absolutely ridiculous. I’ve seen the lines that are making dual-layer BD-ROM drives. I’ve been to the factories. I’ve seen the lines where they’re making dual-layer recordable discs. So [Microsoft and Intel] saying that it’s not possible is obviously misinformation that they were fed, or that they’re feeding others.”
The real issue from a PC manufacturer’s perspective, Peterson argued, is not really “-ROM” capacity but ” R” capacity – the size of the recordable format. Dual-layer BD-R drives, he said – which would enable the 50 GByte capacity, not just the single-layer 25 Gb – are already being adopted by PC manufacturers for release next year, and are actually available now in Japan. So both the highest-capacity disc recorders, and the discs that are used in them, are perfectly visible to any visitor to Japan.
Early versions of the recordable BD-R and rewritable BD-RE versions of Blu-ray demonstrated since 2004 required cartridges to help protect the thin, bonded disc substrates. But in Version 2 of these formats, Peterson points out, the cartridge is not required. The virtue of shedding the cartridge is not just eliminating an ugly appendage. It enables the disc itself to be transferable between set-top devices and PCs, addressing some of the incompatibility issues Microsoft and Intel raised on Monday. The file system used on both PCs and set-top devices will also be the same, he said, in accordance with Version 2 of the specifications. One check of the official Blu-ray Disc License Web site shows that version 2 is indeed currently available, and is being licensed to manufacturers now.
HP to launch Triple-Players for CD, DVD, and Blu-ray
Intel and Microsoft raised a number of other disc compatibility issues as well, centering on the fact that the Blu-ray Disc and the DVD disc are different discs, but HD DVD and DVD are physically very similar. This similarity enables production lines, once upgraded, to produce either HD DVD or DVD at any time. However, a Blu-ray production line must be dedicated to BD – a fact that Peterson concedes. But costs incurred today may be compensated over time, he argued, in the same way that upgrading production lines from single-layer to dual-layer DVD have already been mitigated. The reason, he said, was because once dual-layer DVD was produced in volume, the economies of scale – factoring in higher capacity plus greater demand – balanced out the costs.
“The same is true for Blu-ray Disc,” said Peterson. “[BD] is a revolutionary new technology, there’s no denying that. It is a different disc structure, and there will be a short period of time where it costs reasonably more–not 2x, not 5x, not 6x of DVD–than DVD initially. But as the volumes increase, and the technology is adopted by the mass market, there’s nothing magic about a Blu-ray Disc that’s going to keep it more expensive long-term.”
Microsoft’s Rivas on Tuesday cited some projections that the press had been circulating, that it may cost disc replication factories as much as $1.7 million per line to upgrade their production to BD, and $2.0 million per mastering system. Even then, the upgraded lines would not be able to produce conventional DVD. Peterson could not validate these numbers, but believes that upgrade and maintenance costs such as these are just the nature of the business, regardless of what high-def format a factory chooses to produce: “For any new format,” he argued, “you’re probably going to have to increase your capacity, and certainly, you’ll have to make an investment–whether it’s HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc. So our feeling is that it’s no different for HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc, because the DVD business continues to be very successful, and it will be for years, even after the introduction of these new technologies. It’s not going to be an overnight shift in demand.”
Minimizing factory line upgrades, Microsoft argued, would also enable them to produce so-called “hybrid discs” that could contain both conventional DVD and HD DVD content. The joint statement argued that this would enable consumers to invest in high-def content today, before they invest in the high-def players that would project that content in its full glory. The problem with such a hybrid disc, argued Peterson, is that neither of the formats it supports would be the one that consumers would be more likely to purchase, given what he characterized as lopsided manufacturing industry support for Blu-ray: “If you walk into your favorite retailer store,” he remarked, “and you’re looking at your two alternatives in a notebook, but then you also see that HP’s Media Center PCs and other PCs are also carrying Blu-ray Disc drives, and then I walk over to the consumer electronics wall in that same store, and I see ten brands pushing various Blu-ray Disc products, and I see one or two brands pushing HD DVD, and then I walk over to the game console space, and I see Blu-ray is prevalent there, it’s going to be real obvious that the Blu-ray Disc is more versatile.”
From a device manufacturer’s standpoint, Peterson added, HP would address the problem of lack of hybrid discs for Blu-ray with hybrid players. “All the drives that HP will introduce will be triple-writers,” he announced. “They’ll be able to read and write to CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Disc.”
If it’s such an easy step to make a hybrid player for conventional and high-def content, how much of a technological leap would it be, then, to solve the whole dual-format discrepancy issue with a hybrid player that supports both HD DVD and Blu-ray? Peterson conceded such a device is conceivable, though for the near term at least, unlikely. But if the battle rages on in the marketplace for an extended period of time, he projected, the need for such a hybrid player may indeed develop: “[It’s] unlikely unless this doesn’t get resolved fairly quickly,” he told us. “We feel, once products hit the marketplace, and consumers see where the industry support is, and there’s a lot more product choices within the Blu-ray format, I think that decision will be very easy from a consumer’s perspective. But if there are two products in the marketplace for an extended period of time…the consumers are probably going to stay away because there’s going to be a lot of confusion.
“If both formats exist for, let’s say, a couple or three years,” he continued, “then I think you’ll start to see the introduction of dual format, high-definition drives. But as consumers enter the retail stores, or they’re looking at product reviews and seeing the product choice – whether it’s consumer electronics devices, gaming consoles, or PCs – Blu-ray Disc will be prevalent across all of those types of devices. So I think it’s going to be a fairly safe bet.”
Among Microsoft’s and Intel’s other complaints is the issue of how legally-made backup copies, and streaming licensed content through multiple networked PCs in the home – one objective of Intel’s Viiv technology – would be possible under a Blu-ray system whose copy protection and rights management scheme is safeguarded by three simultaneous, equally controversial, technologies.