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Picture This: Format Wars

Are we ready for another public clash?

Picture This: Format Wars

Jan 1, 2005 12:00 PM,
By Jeff Sauer

Are we ready for another public clash?

How many contractors out there are old enough to remember the great Betamax vs. VHS format war from the late 1970s and early 1980s? That was when two huge electronics companies, Sony and JVC, introduced competing versions of the first affordable VCRs. They were devices that would give consumers and corporate executives alike the ability to record and play video programming on demand. Unfortunately for those on the wrong side of this high-stakes product marketing battle, only one of the competitors would survive.

You might think that after the ensuing consumer bitterness the industry would be hesitant to fight such a public format war again, and that has actually been the case. A major format war was effectively averted in 1995 when the two competing DVD technology camps, Sony/Philips and Toshiba/Warner Bros., agreed to combine their technologies and share the patent royalties before user products really ever came to market. Of course, it didn’t hurt that several major computer companies — including Apple, Compaq, Microsoft, HP, IBM, and others — collectively and forcefully refused to support either of the competing formats.

Yet profit is a powerful motivator and the success of DVD players in living rooms, classrooms, and boardrooms has the technology companies salivating. This time the battle is to invent and bring to market the high-definition successor to the DVD, and two competing camps are again digging foxholes and building bunkers. Sony and Toshiba are still major players, but this time the cast of armies is larger, and so are the stakes.

There is already an increasing amount of video production taking place in high definition, and that is only likely to continue as more efficient and affordable acquisition formats (like HDV cam-corders) come to the market. While it’s a lot more data for nonlinear editing systems, today’s CPUs are powerful enough to handle HD footage almost as if it were just another data type.

From the distribution and display side, last year saw great strides in the number of consumers with access to HDTV, either over the air or through their local cable providers. And HD-capable displays are now the standard fare at consumer electronics stores and professional AV dealers — all with the widescreen aspect ratio that is a hallmark of HD (16:9 video is not exclusive to HD, but certainly is a prominent feature).

However, for that migration to happen, AV installations — for signage, point-of-sale displays, commercial entertainment, and home use — will need affordable source players; in other words, an HD-capable VCR and DVD replacement. The technology is now marketable and already starting to appear in high-end players, but in competing formats; that signals another Betamax vs. VHS-style format war.

The two competing formats are HD DVD and Blu-ray, and both look promising from a technology standpoint. HD DVD builds on the current DVD disc structure, which yields highly desirable backward compatibility for current CD and DVD discs, as well as the ability to copy HD DVD discs with existing equipment. Blu-Ray uses a phase change recording technique that is less backward compatible, but begets a higher expected capacity of 27GB — 54GB if dual-sided — compared to 15GB per side for the HD DVD technology.

HD DVD compensates by using more efficient video encoding, so the two formats will roughly fit a similar amount of video and audio. Rather than staying with the decade-old MPEG-2 compressing format as Blu-ray does, HD DVD calls for more efficient compression. It uses MPEG-4 and includes the emerging H.264 AVC (Advanced Video Coding) version and Microsoft’s Windows Media WMV HD format.


On the surface, HD DVD might seem to be a shoo-in to win this battle. The Toshiba and NEC group has earned the backing of the DVD Forum, the DVD industry’s standards body and advocacy organization. Several motion picture studios — including Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. Studios — also have lined up in support of HD DVD. And by including support for Microsoft’s video compression format, HD DVD might seem to have gained much of the computer industry’s support as well.

But having Microsoft as a partner is double-edged sword. On the one hand, Microsoft is a powerful ally. On the other, if HD DVD were to emerge as the winner, Microsoft would be due royalty payments. That may be a huge deterrent for consumer electronics companies already leery of Microsoft’s insatiable marketshare appetite and lustful eyes toward the consumer electronics industry.

Blu-ray was developed by Sony and Philips, but has consumer electronics support from Hitachi, LG, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Samsung, and Sharp. Interestingly, Dell and HP also support Blu-ray. Consumer electronics giant Thomson (RCA), initially a Blu-ray proponent, recently announced that it would build devices for both technologies, albeit under separate brands.

Most awkwardly, Sony Pictures, including Columbia Pictures, and Disney Studios have now lined up behind Blu-ray. With that Hollywood split and the potential availability of a series of competing format players by early next year, it seems almost inevitable that HD-capable players would be able to play some discs from some studios, but not others. Amazingly, it is not a stretch to say that industry infighting could get to that point.

Given the brewing format war, professional installers may find that a more palatable scenario would be for a computer to become the all-purpose HD player. With today’s computers ultimately more affordable than high-end disc players, Microsoft could be a bigger winner if the DVD industry can’t come to some sort of agreement. Microsoft has been eyeing the living room for years, and this may be its best opportunity yet.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing for the AV contractor, already in the midst of a conversion to IP control. Still, it’s hard to know which is worse, that or having to pick a side in a war of gargantuans that is likely to be drawn out for many years.

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