After Hours

Blu-ray group gets behind Microsoft tech

The VC-1 codec is made an integral part of a Blu-ray spec, giving Microsoft a foot in both camps battling over the successor to DVDs.

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By Ed Frauenheim
CNET News.com

Backers of the Blu-ray DVD format are adopting Microsoft's video compression technology, giving the software giant a secure foothold in each of the two major camps battling to establish a successor to DVDs.

The Blu-ray Disc Association is making three video compression-decompression technologies mandatory in its read-only disc specification, and one of those codecs is Microsoft's VC-1, a Panasonic representative said Tuesday. Panasonic's parent, Matsushita Electric, is one of the 13 companies behind the Blu-ray format, which is vying with the rival HD DVD format to replace today's DVDs for the coming era of high-definition programming.

VC-1 is the name given to Microsoft's VC-9 codec by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), which is considering the technology as a possible standard. As VC-9, VC-1 has already won approval as a mandatory codec for the HD DVD format.

The decision by the Blu-ray group means that makers of Blu-ray disc players will have to incorporate VC-1, as well as another advanced codec known as MPEG-4 AVC High Profile and the older codec MPEG-2, said Richard Doherty, a director of Panasonic's Hollywood laboratory. Advanced codecs are designed to squeeze a larger amount of content into a given space.

The move will lead to licensing fees given to companies, like Microsoft, that own intellectual property used by these codecs. The decision also appears to show that Microsoft was wise to buck its usual strategy and turn its VC-9 technology over to an open-standards body such as SMPTE. Doherty said it was "important" to the Blu-ray backers that Microsoft's codec became an open-standards technology.

The steering committee of the DVD Forum standards group, which is overseeing the development of HD DVD technology, has mandated the inclusion of MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 AVC codecs in addition to VC-9 (VC-1).

Both Blu-ray and HD DVD use blue lasers, which enable much more data to be put on a disc than with today's DVDs, which rely on red lasers. The tussle between the two next-generation technologies is akin to the videotape format war that raged years ago between Betamax and VHS. The current spat—and resulting consumer confusion—could help .

Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at research firm IDC, said the battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray reamins too early to call, despite Blu-ray's codec news. But the development does boost Microsoft's efforts to promote Windows Media technology in the media industry, he said. "It increases their credibility," he said.

Microsoft has been making a push beyond the bounds of its traditional software businesses of operating-system and office productivity products to try to become a major player in the emerging realm of digital entertainment.

"Microsoft has been actively working with various standards groups, including Blu-ray, to deliver exciting and compelling next-generation, high-quality audio and video experiences for consumers across PC and CE (consumer electronics) devices," according to a statement from Amir Majidimehr, a vice president in Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division.

Majidimehr said the software giant does not intend to take sides in the battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray. "Microsoft will maintain its neutral position in supporting the emerging high-definition video formats that deliver new possibilities for content providers and consumers," he said.

Michelle Abraham, an analyst at research firm Instat/MDR, said that if Blu-ray wins out as the next-generation DVD format, the inclusion of advanced compression technology will be a boon for consumers, because discs will be able to pack in more material.

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