With CES going on in Las Vegas at the moment all the news about the next-generation DVD formats is starting to come out and the whole debate over whether the “official” format, HD-DVD, will triumph over the technically superior upstart, Blu-Ray. The last thing anyone really wants is a format war, especially when the early players are so fucking expensive.
I’m a huge DVD buff so I’ve been following this whole thing pretty much since the beginning and know the relative benefits of each format (the respective Wikipedia entries here and here are a good starting point), and really hope that a compromise can eventually be reached because a format war will do nobody any good, but it’s impossible to guess which one of the formats will win out.
The most obvious comparison is VHS against Betamax, in which the technically superior Betamax was beaten out by VHS in the race to revolutionise home entertainment. That shows that even if Blu-Ray is superior in many ways (storage space for a start: 54GB and up compared to 30-45GB) it’s not going to ensure a victory. It could be argued that any technical superiority is made irrelevant by the fact that HD-DVD carries the familiar DVD name which BR won’t be able to use, and to a consumer who dislikes jargon and prefers recognisable names that’s an important coup.
What could make or break them is hardware support, and although much has been made of the PS3’s ability to play back BD-ROMs (obvious comparisons to the PS2’s place in cementing DVD as a mainstream format should be made) you can’t ignore that Microsoft are firmly behind HD-DVD. Even if the Xbox 360 doesn’t have HD-DVD compatibility, Windows is more ubiquitous than even the almighty PlayStation and if they sneak it into homes via the growing HTPC market that’s just as much a trojan horse as the PS3.
Part of me wants HD-DVD to win out for the simple reason that I’m all for standards, and Blu-Ray is another attempt by Sony to establish their own, often overpriced, standard when the current one doesn’t suit them. We’ve seen it so many times – Betamax, Memory Stick, DVD+RW, UMD, MiniDisc, ATRAC, etc – and it just locks people into Sony hardware, undermines standards, and confuses the average consumer.
Coexistence is a possibility like with DVD-RW and DVD+RW which seem to have established some form of equilibrium, but I don’t think anybody thinks that it would be a better solution than one unified standard with all movies on it. Our best hope is just that a compromise is still possible or, if a format war does happen, that it doesn’t undo all the good work that DVD has done in bringing home entertainment into the digital age.