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Warner convinces Blu-ray to adopt red laser as a fallback

New Blu-ray member Warner Bros. would support iHD layer, oppose mandatory managed copy
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For Warner Bros. to accept membership in the Blu-ray Disc Association's board of directors, the studio requested that the BDA adopt certain changes to its technology. According to Warner, its requests were approved. One such request was for Blu-ray drives to support a red laser-based high-definition disc format, albeit with lower capacity than BD, as a low-cost alternative. The HD DVD group has already made provisions for a very, very similar (read: unofficially identical) format, which it calls HD-9 (or "HD DVD-9"); for Blu-ray, the format is called BD-9.

The new bypass format will use the 650 nm red laser that already exists in today's DVD, and which would be necessary anyway for the new drive to read existing DVD discs (the blue laser for Blu-ray and HD DVD has a 405 nm wavelength). BD-9 will use the same disc substrate as DVD, so existing manufacturing facilities can produce BD-9 discs with no mechanical alterations. It uses the same single-sided, dual-layer format as existing "DVD 9," which is used today to hold movies that are about two hours long, plus extra content.

Of course, high-definition movies will require greater encoding per frame, so a BD-9 or HD-9 disc will not hold as much content in terms of time as its DVD counterpart. But Warner Home Video's Steve Nickerson said the bypass format can still be advantageous to Warner and other content providers. "That still allows for us to put short-form programming, whether it be TV episodes or short-form children's programming, etc., without having to use a BD-25," which is a single-sided, single-layer BD disc. (Currently, the BD disc with the greatest theoretical capacity is the BD-50, which is single-sided, dual-layer.)

The red laser, lower-cost alternative is part of what continues to attract Warner to HD DVD. As the HD DVD Promotions Group has asserted, along with Warner, the manufacturers' cost of replacing their mastering and duplicating equipment, just to support a new substrate - which is what BD will require - will translate into the price consumers pay for the BD disc. It also translates into content providers' cost along the way, said Nickerson, so having a low-cost alternative for lower-capacity content packages will help offset that cost.

There are packages that Warner offers today, and would like to offer in the future, Nickerson explained, which repurpose its television content without utilizing an entire season of a series, which might normally consume up to six DVDs. "There's people that have said, 'Well, in the HD world, you can put a whole season on one disc.' That's true, you could, but we don't necessarily sell everything in whole seasons. There may be a 'Best Of' collection that might be only five episodes, and that in fact could fit on a BD-9."

With both high-def formats now supporting the red laser alternative, a number of low-cost packaging options become available. Single episodes of shows, and conceivably entire movies without the extra features (perhaps as a low-price alternative for consumers) could eventually constitute a sizable percentage of the disc-based content market. Games that simply don't require 25 GByte will probably continue to be distributed on 9 GByte discs with conventional dual-layer DVD substrates, even when Sony's PlayStation 3 includes a BD player. In short, all the content that doesn't need even half of BD's 25 GByte could continue to be produced on conventional DVD substrates far into the future. Yet those discs may not be compatible with current DVD players, not because they use incompatible substrates but because they use incompatible file systems and logical formats, and also because they may require AACS to run.

Also today, Warner's Nickerson commented in favor of HP's request for the BDA to adopt iHD, the XML-based interactive technology format produced by Microsoft and Disney. Currently, Blu-ray supports BD-Java or BD-J, although as HP's official told us yesterday, Microsoft's inclusion of iHD as a native part of its forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, makes iHD the more attractive alternative from a PC manufacturer's vantage point. By Microsoft including iHD in Vista, computer manufacturers automatically pay royalties for it, and may not want to pay separate but simultaneous royalty fees to another party, for an altogether different system.

"We certainly would support iHD being included into the specifications of Blu-ray as an option for programming," Nickerson told TG Daily. Elsewhere in the press, a Warner spokesperson was quoted as suggesting the BDA could simultaneously support both iHD and BD-J. Such a provision may not be technically feasible, and some argue simultaneous support would be far from the most cost-efficient option. However, those objections aside, said Nickerson, Warner could conceivably support a simultaneous compromise for any number of reasons, "not the least of which, we're already familiar with iHD, so it takes some of the learning curve away from our folks." The DVD Forum has already chosen iHD as its interactive layer for HD DVD.

Yesterday, HP told TG Daily that if its requests weren't taken seriously by the BDA, it may pursue its option of joining the HD DVD Promotions Group, and adopt a public stance of neutrality in the high-def disc format debate. HP would be welcomed as a participant in the Promotions Group, Warner's Nickerson told us, "not only by Warner but probably by others, but I can't really speak for others. But if they're going to actively promote HD DVD, we would welcome them as part of the Promotions Group."

While formal unification talks between the two disc associations has been publicly suspended, Nickerson admitted, there remains plenty of dialogue between the multiple parties involved, particularly with Warner. "Warner has been, prior to last week, very actively engaged with any number of companies on both sides of the issue, in order to try to get a resolution to get to one format, and we continue after last week's announcement to work in that regard," he told us. But after all the talk has concluded, if it should happen that the market is left with two simultaneous formats (four, if you count BD-9 and HD-9), then Nickerson added, "We also have an obligation to those consumers that are going to buy machines that can play high-definition packaged media, to try to provide our content in either format."