Update: Blu-ray and HD DVD support demystified

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Update: Blu-ray and HD DVD support demystified

Analysis – If you had to choose between Blu-ray and HD DVD today, what would you buy? Based on recent media coverage we guess likely you would go with Blu-ray. But has the market already made its decision? Which companies support which format? We spent some time examining the current market and compiled a list of hardware vendors, retail stores and publishers and their support for the HD age.   

Editor’s note: Charts update on 1/31 11:30am EDT

There is no doubt that the high-definition format war is one of most popular topics in the tech industry today. But while Blu-ray and HD DVD are gaining traction in the mainstream, it is still the enthusiast user and early adopter that remains the driver of the general opinion on both formats on the Internet. We are following this format war closely and, as a result, are often much more tangled up in this HD opinion battle than we’d prefer to. Just as is the case with Apple-Windows PC, Nvidia-ATI/AMD or Intel/AMD, one day you are being accused of being bought by Intel and the next day by AMD.

The HD DVD/Blu-ray rivalry has the sort of dynamic we have been used to the Intel/AMD battles once a new technology is emerging that could change the playing field. And especially since we have some changes on the content side, our reader reactions are more intense – with some pretending to be representatives of major content studios and requesting retractions and others threatening to post articles discussing allegedly false content that was published by TG Daily. While we have no doubts about the articles we have posted so far, these emails got us thinking. Is this just the typical buzz that is happening or are we heading into a phase that in fact is deciding who is winning the format war – and Gartner’s prediction in fact is right?

We believe that all predictions are pure guesses, not more and not less. HD DVD has not yet lost the battle, but needs to review its strategy. To find out where the market is right now, we took at the format support lists today. We recommend taking this list with a grain of salt, as we heard that virtually in every market segment companies are reevaluating their HD strategy and will make further announcements likely by the end of Q1.        

Let’s take a step back first. The high definition format war essentially began in the beginning of 2006.  At that year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Blu-ray and HD DVD were both on display in major exhibit halls for the first time. Back then, many studios had already chosen sides, and were already beginning to mold the seemingly one-sided battle there is today.  However, these studios made decisions based on concept demonstrations instead of actual working technology.

For example, Disney sided with Blu-ray before the first consumer players were even shown off at CES.  “We think Blu-ray offers a more enhanced entertainment experience. If there isn’t a unified standard, and you believe that the best format will win, then you have to go with the most capable format,” said the president of Disney’s Buena Vista Home Entertainment Bob Chapek in 2006. On the software backend, HD DVD’s HDi technology is believed to outpace what Blu-ray can do, and it has been that way since both formats officially launched. Sony is just now beginning to match HD DVD’s enhanced navigation and video control features.

The hardware side is second to the content, especially because consumers are largely reliant on players built by founding companies of each format. However, availability of playback hardware, provides market exposure and marketing potential. Here is how the CE player support looks today (U.S.):  

* – LG’s only high-def player is a combo Blu-ray/HD DVD device.  Samsung has a dual format player, but also sells an individual Blu-ray player.
Chart reflects availability in the U.S. today

Hardware support is really not important in the format war, and hasn’t played a very big role in past generations. Toshiba remains is the major driver in developing and marketing HD DVD and thus it commands the market for HD DVD players.  The same goes for Sony with Blu-ray, especially because of the Playstation 3.  On the studio side, the only major exclusive HD DVD content supporter from the beginning has been Universal.

One thing to note, though, is that every Blu-ray player on the market now except for ones released in 2008 and the Playstation 3 will near obsolescence later this year when the new Blu-ray Disc Java Profile 1.1 standard becomes commonplace.  Because older players were not built for this standard and do not have any way of downloading firmware upgrades, early adopters will not be able to access certain in-movie features in the future.  It’s possible this could cause a backlash down the road.

The content side is where it all happens, and because Sony was able to wow the big studios with its ideas before anything was set in stone, it grabbed hold of them before HD DVD even knew what hit it.  Sony Pictures, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Disney, all sided with Blu-ray exclusively.

Read on the next page: Support from movie studios, PC vendors and retail stores 

Movie studios, PC vendors and retail stores

HD DVD has managed to get one convert.  Through a reported financial agreement, Paramount went from supporting both high-def standards to HD DVD exclusively.  Unfortunately for the fledgling format, though, Blu-ray grew back stronger from that and recently gained exclusive support from Warner Bros, another studio that used to be format neutral.

Some studios listed above are owned by the same parent company but are listed separately because their distribution decisions are independent.
* – Warner Bros will stop supporting HD DVD on April 2, 2008.

In the above chart, the major studios for each side are shown, including those that still support both formats.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the ones on the Blu-ray list have more name recognition than those on HD DVD.  This is where HD DVD is dying.  It speaks to the old adage of “content is king.”  The fact that Disney, Fox, and soon Warner are all exclusively backing Blu-ray gives the format an edge that is very difficult to out-do.  However, Universal and Paramount are also huge players in the game.  With those anchors, Blu-ray can’t run away with everything, and the scales can still tilt either way.

  Microsoft also supports HD DVD, and has from the start.  The company’s most visible contribution is the HD DVD add-on for the Xbox 360.  However, it is even more important behind the scenes, as it created the HDi technology that powers advanced features in HD DVD media, like picture-in-picture videos and Internet connectivity.

HD DVD also has the official nod from the DVD Forum, which standardized the DVD format, although it wasn’t exactly a unanimous decision and not much weight is really given to that support today.  Early on, though, it looked like HD DVD would be strong enough to capture the attention of the Blu-ray followers and cause them to jump ship.

For example, famed technology writer Chris Prillo wrote a column after CES 2006 that speculated, “I have no doubt that HD DVD will be the victor. Why? Price and compatibility!”

Additionally, HD DVD may be ready to tap into a new market.  According to NPD senior vice president Stephen Baker, the price points of HD DVD players are reaching so low that they might begin appealing to users as standard DVD upconverters.  “It’s certainly a viable option because it’s a relatively inexpensive player in general,” said Baker.  “Something that has features that people want and is relatively inexpensive is a sure way to open the market to consumers.”

* as available in the U.S. today 

The other market for high definition media is in the computer industry.  There appears to be somewhat less of a battle here, as several manufacturers support both formats.  However, the number one manufacturer, Dell, has exclusively chosen to back Blu-ray.  Apple has done the same.  Of course, Toshiba is the biggest PC manufacturer to exclusively support HD DVD computer drives. Microsoft is Toshiba’s strongest ally and is holding on to its Xbox 360 HD DVD drive. HP and Acer, two of the top three PC makers in the US, are neutral.  And according to Baker, the computer drive market plays a “very little” role in the format war overall.  So don’t take too much stock in this part of the HD battle.

To reiterate, we believe that the format war is not over just yet.  The end of the battle will be determined when general consumers have voted with their dollars.  That’s why retail is such an important sector to consider.

Despite a lot of talk over stores choosing sides in the format war, there is actually very little of a concrete divide.  Blockbuster and Target both made public announcements about supporting Blu-ray and HD DVD.

However, dozens of Blockbuster locations stock both formats, and Target sells HD DVD movies right alongside Blu-ray Discs.  Additionally, Target’s decision of Blu-ray exclusivity was only valid through the end of 2007.  Regarding online stores, it is actually near impossible to find an official outlet that only stocks one format.  The top 10 electronics stores, according to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, stock both format players and content, so it is quite evident that retailers have not chosen sides just yet.

* Meijer HD DVD player sales are limited to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 HD DVD player
** Products available offline only

There is really no divide within retail stores.  Of the top 10 retailers that offer HD media, according to Pricewaterhouse Cooper,  not one has chosen to exclusively back one format over the  other.

As long as there are hit movies on HD DVD, it will continue to be a viable player, and as long as it continues to be a viable player, it will remain in the eye of the mass consumer market.  When it’s time for that market to make its decision, then we can start talking about the demise of one format and the acceptance of the other.

As Baker noted, “The whole high definition movie business is an early-adopter business, and it’s going to be a little while before it moves into the mainstream.”