Following last week’s announcements regarding Blu-ray and the Sony Playstation 3, it looks like HD DVD will be coming back as the high definition movie format of choice. Call me amazed but happy!
The first clue, which few seemed to notice, was that Sony Electronics didn’t show any new Blu-ray players at CES in 2009. The next was the announcement that the PS3 was getting into the download movie game with NBC , despite the previous dismissal of downloads compared to optical media. The final piece to the puzzle was the announcement at the end of GDC (Games Developer Conference) of the new priorities that Sony are putting behind BD-50 disc production. It turns out that BD-50s are still pretty hard to make and remain expensive, while the production capacity has not increased at the rate anyone was hoping, so Sony had to prioritize what goes on those discs. There’s a lot more profit to be made on PS3 games (which have to be on Blu-ray media) than there are on BD movies, especially when the majority of those movies are made for competing studios like Warner Bros (even before considering the special deals and discounts that were offered to some studios during the format war). In light of all this Sony have decided that PS3 games are the most important thing to put on BD-50s and second most important are dual PS3-games/Movie discs. Next in the priority list are Sony movies, and last are everyone else’s movies. There are some contractual limitations that mean a few studios will be getting special treatment, but those clauses expire in the not-too-distant future so the writing is on the wall for those who are looking closely.
The response from some of the studios on the bottom of the list has been surprising, to say the least. They want back in the HD DVD game! Almost every modern DVD duplication line is capable of making HD DVDs at little additional cost, and most of the studios are more than familiar with HD DVD title creation. Word of this change starting going around a few weeks ago, and a some details are now emerging. I started receiving HDi questions over email from some of my old contacts in the post-production world recently, and naturally I was curious but no-one would explain why. Now it all starts to make sense.
Toshiba are readying the 3-series of HD DVD players which were under development when everything went south at the start of 2008. The top-of-the-line model will be the HD-RD40 which includes a hard disc, cablecard slot and ATSC tuner. As you might be able to guess from the name it’s a recorder as well as a player, and you can even download-to-burn from a yet-to-be-announced internet service. I have a prototype you can see in the picture. There will be read-only players too of course at really nice prices, but I can’t share the details yet.
Microsoft was always a huge HD DVD fan and there are various assets which can be re-used, such as an HD DVD burner driver for Vista and Windows 7, and there are enough core features in Win7 to produce a movie player: it has the codecs, the network stack and a script engine all present and ready, so porting the Xbox player shouldn’t be too hard if someone commits to it. No tricky Java VM required of course.
Although the HD DVD team itself is no more at Microsoft, the Xbox team plan on re-issuing the add-on drive in the original beige and new Elite-colored black models (see picture), at a lower-than-before price. No major software changes are planned, at least initially, as the HD DVD 1.0 spec is as good now as it ever was.
Sources at both major post-production houses tell me that all the newer big titles are being written for both formats now and have been for a few weeks, with a de-emphasis on BD-J. It was always hard to get BD-J to work (it took a staggering 21 months longer for Batman Begins to appear on BD than on HD DVD and Constantine took over two years more) but it was even harder to get it to work well on the variety of BD players in the market. The BD profile madness didn’t help so it is no surprise that consumers are confused about BD-Live capability when it still isn’t mandatory, even in 2009. A recent report from The Diffusion Group says that only 28% of adult consumers in the US understand that only some BD players can connect to the internet. (8% think they all can and 5% think none can, the rest are understandably confused).
What of the other hardware manufacturers? Well Pioneer have already said they are going to delegate BD player production to Sharp after killing their Kuro Plasma line, though I don’t think Pioneer ever really “got” BD: of all the players they produced, only one was BD-Live capable and it cost two grand, plus you had to go add your own gig of memory for it to work! No news from Panasonic, though they have almost as much IP in BD as Sony so are unlikely to give in easily. LG are well positioned for a return to HD DVD, as they came close to releasing their second hybrid player before the format war came to a premature end, plus their recent BD players are reasonably priced and have been well received. Sony’s lack of player announcements at CES seemed to be overlooked, maybe they wanted to focus attention on another new device of theirs.
These are exciting times, I’m so looking forward to some new HD DVD titles and happy to see some new hardware coming to market in the next few months. So glad I hung in there.