Diary of a High Definition Format War


Here are my personal highlights (and lowlights) of the format war, from down in the trenches of the HD DVD team at Microsoft. To make it a bit clearer, here is a graph of the peaks and troughs of the last three years:



April 2005: I join the Profession Content Group. Immediately start work on iHD engine (later renamed HDi™)  for the PC. (Eventually this code will run on Xbox, Linux and Windows CE too).


August 2005: HD DVD Spec 1.0 is finished, and a party is held on a boat on Lake Washington with lots of Microsoft and Toshiba folks, along with some Studio people too. Weather is great, and a good time is had by all.


September 2005: Microsoft announces we are HD DVD exclusive (along with Intel).


September 2005: I see my first Xbox 360!


October 2005: First HD DVD drives turn up from Toshiba.


Jan 2006: At CES we demo Bourne Supremacy HD DVD running with animated menus and subtitles that include a picture of who is speaking (a feature never used on a shipping title). The demo was running on Vista. I had worked for a week on a lip-sync bug and when the demo was run the audio was turned off anyway.


Jan 2006: At CES Xbox announced they would be producing an HD DVD add-on, which was a complete surprise to everyone except those on the stage.


Jan 2006: At CES Toshiba give away the first HD DVD Hybrid discs: a single sided disc that has both DVD and HD DVD content on it. BD can’t ever do that.


Jan 2006 (I think): The team sees the first Toshiba HD-A1 prototype (called Excalibur) running the first real HD content. To general delight the demo content was created by Toshiba with an HD camcorder and features shots of the August Launch Party: the first HD DVD content I ever see includes me drinking on a boat in the sunshine: who would have thought?


March 2006: The team has a party at The Big Picture in Redmond when we watch The Last Samurai from an HD DVD check disc, on a prototype A1 player, on a theater-sized screen. I recall one playback glitch and a problem with subtitles, but overall impressions were kick-ass.


April 2006: Toshiba ship the first HD DVD player, the HD A1, to great reviews, for $499. First three titles in the US are Phantom of the Opera, Million Dollar Baby, and The Last Samurai. My own A1 arrives at home!


May 2006: Bourne Supremacy is released, the first HD DVD title using Picture in Picture to show the director’s commentary. It takes BD over eighteen months to get the same ability, and then it only works on Profile 1.1 players (i.e. the PS3).


June 2006: Samsung release the first Blu-ray player, for $999. A few weeks later the team gathered in front of one and checked out the first BD titles. Man how we laughed: lots of hour-glasses while we waited for, well pretty much everything. The menus were more primitive than DVD menus: tiny chapter icons, and only as many that could fit on a single screen. Weird. Then we watched The Fifth Element, and saw how bad the picture quality was. We couldn’t believe how lame everything was in comparison to HD DVD. And for twice the price. Things were looking up.


November 2006: Microsoft ship the Xbox 360 HD DVD Player for $199 to generally good reviews. It’s a lot faster than the Toshiba players but suffers from Xbox hardware limitations (no HDMI, later fixed, and no advanced multi-channel audio output).


June 2007: The first network-aware HD DVD title is released, Freedom 1 from Bandai, which allowed additional content to be downloaded from the internet. It takes BD three more versions to offer the same feature and as of this writing, eight months later, exactly zero BD Profile 2.0 players are available (although strangely there are two BD titles that claim networking features).


August 2007: Paramount announces they are going HD DVD exclusive, having tried being dual format for a while. Champagne and goodies are consumed in the hallways. This was the best day for HD DVD for sure. All of a sudden we weren’t the underdogs any more, we had a real shot at winning this thing. (Sadly Sony come to a similar realization and start getting the big checks ready).


December 2007: Hardware and software sales are strong for HD DVD. Everyone is happy.


Jan 4, 2008: Black Friday. The team are called to a special meeting called at 11am where we learn of Warner’s decision to go Blu-ray only, which they promptly do publicly an hour later. Without a doubt the worst day in the life of HD DVD.


Jan 2008: CES 2008 turns into an unhappy experience for HD DVD, starting the day after the Warner bombshell. Cool demos never see the light of day and everyone is pretty shell-shocked.


Feb 2008: A bunch more bad news from Wal-mart, Netflix and Best Buy.


Feb 19, 2008: Toshiba announce they are dropping HD DVD. We lost. We were robbed. I feel like the Democrats after the 2000 election.

Comments (18)

  1. Rosyna says:

    War and Saw IV are two BD Live titles available now (Jan 22nd)

  2. Alan says:

    R.I.P. HD-DVD.

    HD-DVD had one single advantage over Blu-ray that mattered most to me: lack of region coding. I regularly play and own movies from multiple regions. This has caused me countless issues with traditional DVD, even with modern multi-region players.

    Unfortunately, it would seem that those problems will continue with Blu-ray. However, there are so few multi-region Blu-ray players out now, and there are reports of update complications. So it may be a few years before I can realistically invest in Blu-ray.

  3. DustoMan says:

    Andy,

    Can’t imagine what it must have been like to work on a team with so many ups and downs.  I have a couple questions for you if you can answer any of them.  If you can’t, totally understand.

    1. How close was the 360 to having a HD-DVD drive built-in?

    2. Will we ever get to hear about any of those cool demos Toshiba never showed at CES?

    3. Did you ever get any inside rumblings about what Toshiba was feeling after the Warner announcement?  It’s of my opinion that they just kinda rolled over and admitted defeat instead of doing anything to push their format. (Low number of releases in January and February and nothing to show at all at CES, for example.)

    4. Any chance of getting HDi to work with Blu-Ray?

    5. What will the HD-DVD and HDi teams at Microsoft do now?

    Thank you for all your hard work on the HD-DVD format.  I have about 40 titles that I will continue to enjoy on my Xbox 360.  You and your team did an awesome job, it’s just too bad the better technology didn’t prevail.

    Dustin

  4. Nicholas says:

    It really is a bummer to see HD-DVD die out, when it was technically superior and more consumer-focused than Blu-Ray ever was. My friend invited me to over to watch Pirates of the Caribbean on his Sony player, and I couldn’t believe how long it took just to load the main menu for the MOVIE, much less any special features. My HD-DVD add-on drive? Nothing like that at all.

    As a consumer (and geek), I was really hoping for a Microsoft/Toshiba win here, but alas.. what can I do? I’m now stuck with an obsolete piece of hardware.. maybe HD-DVD prices will cave and I can pick up some super-cheap movies?

  5. Region coding was a big advantage of HD DVD for me too.

    My question now is: Where to from here?

    I don’t want to buy region-coded Blu-ray discs, but the only alternative for HD would be something like Xbox Live Video Marketplace, which has the double disadvantage of being essentially region coded too, and also not portable.

    The ideal scenario is that either MS releases a region-free BD add-on for the 360 or Toshiba releases a region-free stand-alone BD player. If either of those happen, I’ll commit straight away.

  6. Alan says:

    It was a dark day indeed. Shortly after the Warner announcement the sale of BR players went up…how long before these buyers are shouting about how there players won’t play the latest disks? I see trouble and strife for some time yet with this format. Luckily, I have a PS3 so I can still collect HD movies and (hopefully) not have to worry about if they will play or not.

    I just got ratatouille and was shocked at the amount of waiting between menus (with a little hoola-hooping rat inbetween) – there is even a warning at the start of the disk that features might not work if you don’t have the latest firmware.

    It’s a situation that should never have occured. Bluray wasn’t finished and should not have been released until it was…but by then Sony realised HD DVD would have been embraced by the buying public and decided to release a half-arsed version of BR. It’s a shame.

    Alan

  7. A friend of mine at Microsoft, Andy Pennell, has been working on HD-DVD from day one. Over on his blog he details his personal history with the product. Diary of a High Definition Format War It’s a good read. Andy…

  8. DustoMan says:

    @Rosyna

    Saw maybe a BD Live title, but there’s no hardware to use it.  War only has BonusView.  Don’t confuse BD Live with BonusView.

  9. andypennell says:

    Dustin,

    It was fabulous working on this team, the most fun I’ve ever had at Microsoft. Well except for Jan 4th anyway :-) In answer to your questions:

    1. AFAIK Xbox never contemplated building an HD DVD drive in.

    2. Not sure if those demos will ever surface. Shame.

    3. Yes, I do know more about what the HD DVD PRG plans were post-Warner but most didn’t happen (except the hardware price reductions).

    4. We tried that before, maybe we’ll try again.

    5. We have some more HD DVD stuff to be doing, plus some exciting new stuff too.

    Thanks for your kind comments.

  10. asymtote says:

    Given that consumers did not decide this one (all most people ever wanted was for one format to win), how did Sony beat HD DVD in your opinion?

  11. andypennell says:

    asymtote: How did Sony win? By writing big checks, pure and simple. They couldn’t afford to lose: see http://www.contentagenda.com/blog/1500000150/post/840022084.html?nid=3038 for a great explanation of that.

  12. hitek0007 says:

    I’m very disappointed to see HD-DVD go.  It was, in my opinion, the best High Def solution for consumers in general.  Thank you for all your hard work on the format that could have been.  

    Do you think HD-DVD could have been saved?

  13. Not a fun ride, but very cool historical timeline.  thanks for publishing!

  14. Mehar says:

    I can’t believe its over so fast! HD DVD was the superior format that should have won.

    Andy, what do you think the chances are that we could see HD DVD in the next Xbox for a gaming purpose if Microsoft is unable to come to terms with Sony and the BDA about a Blu Ray add on (Could you comment on that?)?

  15. Xtramalt says:

    Interesting (and sad) post.  Sorry the game went this way.

  16. Mehar says:

    Andy: Alright I made the corrections, sorry for the confusion or and other inconvience it may have caused.

  17. DaveBG says:

    Andy, obviously it’s all water under the bridge now but I wonder if you might let us know how close the 51gb TL disc was to going retail, did they get it working on all the HD DVD players (and if not was it only the 1st gen that had issues) and what was scheduled for the first 51gb release?

    I wonder if you can also shed light on why the 51gb TL disc was still being worked on after HD DVD vanaished?

    Is this the next Xboxes big capacity storage disc (cos we know digital distribution will not be a reality globally no matter how much it has advanced by then) and Microsoft’s way of giving the BDA the finger in royalty payments?

  18. andypennell says:

    At the software level I worked at, the 51GB disc made no difference: just more bits on the disc. I’m guessing the driver folks might have had work to do, but I never saw anything myself.

    I know nothing about Xbox futures, sorry. I personally doubt it would be based on optical discs though.