Don't Say Goodbye To HD DVD, Yet

Opinion - CES was unkind to HD DVD this year, but don't underestimate the power of the fledgling format.

A couple days before the beginning of this month's Consumer Electronics Show, Warner Home Video announced it decided to support Blu-ray exclusively and end its relationship with HD DVD. This gave a tremendous push to Blu-ray's existing lead and dominance with studio support.

"This was a big win for Sony and Blu-ray will certainly increase its share of the market," says Gloria Barczak, an electronics branding expert and marketing professor at Northeastern University.

However, don't forget that the format war is still in its infancy. Neither HD format is even two years old yet. Standard DVD sales still dwarf both high-def format sales combined. There is plenty of time before one of these formats will become the standard.

Also, keep in mind that more than 90% of all Blu-ray hardware sales come in the form of the Playstation 3. A video game console is a solid platform on which to launch a new format medium, but it's hardly enough to sustain the medium for years to come.

We're not exactly looking at new turf here. Sony has doled out countless formats, all of which were technologically superior and impressive on a specification sheet. However, the company has had a pathetic success rate with these formats. I'm talking about Betamax, which was actually better than VHS; the Digital Audio Tape and Minidisc were both the first to explore the field of recordable digital audio but both failed, and Sony's Hi8 video camcorder tape format also sunk.

And of course, looking at the Playstation 3 factor is a must when we are talking about Blu-ray. While it seems good to have such huge support from a device, it seems very difficult to swallow the idea that a game console can determine the result of an entire format war.

The Playstation 2 was considered one of the big pushes for DVD players, but today I'm sure very few people use their PS2 as their main DVD player.

HD DVD has many things going for it. The players are less bulky and less expensive. It is also not as costly for studios to publish their films on HD DVD. Blu-ray is the much more expensive format. Also, HD DVD has always run circles around Blu-ray with regard to bonus material. Over a dozen HD DVD titles now have special material that can be accessed directly through the player's Ethernet connection and downloaded to its internal hard drive.

There are far more Blu-ray titles without HD-exclusive features than is the case for HD DVD. The technology often is considered to be superior and cheaper on the HD DVD side, but Blu-ray just happens to have the PS3 factor. In my opinion, that is really the only thing it has on its side right now, and if that fizzles, we're looking at a completely new ball game.

"Certainly, having one format ends confusion for the consumer but they will still be unwilling to buy if they don't see value in what they're buying," said Barczak.

Think about it. The technology world is filled with powerful comeback stories. Look at Nintendo and its unabashed success with the Wii. Just a few years ago some critics were counting Nintendo out of the console race for good. Or look at Apple, the whole Intel/AMD scenario or HP in the PC arena.

Sure, HD DVD has a long way to go to re-establish itself, but the opportunity is still out there. Looking back at history, movie studios have jumped ship from formats, fads have died off with the snap of a finger, and there's always the chance for a unpredictable surprise that changes the game entirely. It's all happened before, and the fact that this format war is so highly publicized just makes every shift so crucial. It'll be at least another year before we know for sure who has the permanent upper hand.

The battle is still too close to call at this time. My advice: If you aren't part of the early-adopter crowd and you don't want to run the risk of investing into a failing format, remain patient. One year ago, this battle looked completely different and we would be surprised if the HD DVD camp would give up that easily.