After Hours

Peter Cochrane's Blog: DVD format wars

Blu-ray vs HD DVD - is it really game over?

Written on flight VS003 from London to New York and dispatched via a free JetBlue wi-fi service at JFK airport.

There are many theories about how one technology or brand wins the global market over another. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it often largely comes down to fashion. Take-up is driven by what's perceived to be cool.

In the case of Betamax, which first came out in 1975, and VHS, which appeared the following year, it was a relatively protracted war spanning years of investment in hardware and content by the general public.

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In the end VHS won. It was not the best technology but it came with a few more bells and whistles - and its name rolled off the tongue more easily than Betamax. In reality market take-up decided the winner.

The battle amounted to who could get the most content in front of most eyeballs, and this meant more than just titles. The primary use for many people was recording off-air broadcast material. Here Betamax tapes were more expensive than VHS and had far less capacity. So ultimately bit-hours per dollar mattered most.

The wars over DVD formats seem to have been slightly different. If we had gone with the-worst-technology-wins theory we could have expected HD DVD to win because it only involved a tweaking of the well-established CD technology. It was also first to market and only required a minimal investment for the modification of existing production plant.

Blu-ray on the other hand was a bigger undertaking that demanded significant industry retooling and a lot of additional cost. But content producers and the public seemed to get canny - and surprisingly they decided to wait.

Their reward was a quick war, a good decision, and more bandwidth availability. In short we all went for the best bit-hours-per-dollar deal, and in this case the best technology won.

So what happens next? We already see super high definition formats such as SHD and SHD 3D being developed and demonstrated, with some initial roll-out with Blu-ray in new cinema complexes. And I think there could just be time for one more cycle of disc technology before it disappears altogether.

I think we might expect it to be overtaken and effectively wiped out by solid-state drives and, of course, the successor to today's bandwidth dribble we call broadband. This is already a very easy step for those countries that have already invested in optical fibre to the home.

The rest - the vast majority - have about a decade to take on board the significance of this opportunity for video conferencing and advanced gaming, not to mention for all the education, healthcare and business applications. If they fail to seize the opportunity they will suffer the damaging effects of being frozen out forever.

Disc technologies have served us well but I for one will be pleased to see them go. Over the decades they have become less robust and less reliable, while significantly contributing to our green problems.

They also occupy more physical space than any of us can really afford. Just give me YouTube on afterburners, with the content I want online, in the form I want at a time I desire, no matter what the format or location.

Most of all, I don't want to have to wait for the outcome of any more technology wars.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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