Will HD DVD be dead in one year?

Hannover (Germany) - The battle between the HD DVD and Blu-ray camps has gone into a new round at Cebit - with HD DVD promoters touting the formats advantages and almost claiming victory over Blu-ray, while a Sony executive told TG Daily that he expects the format war to be over within one year.

If you had the choice between "the look and sound of perfect" or the maximum in "hi-def experience", which one would you choose? Sounds similar, but could be very different with what you end up. In the first case, you would end up with HD DVD, whose supporters served salmon and sparkling water during its Cebit conference, and in the second case you would get Blu-ray and doughnuts with coffee.

Admitted, a far-fetched image for describing the two competing hi-def formats, but even the food presented at the Cebit press conferences showcased just how different the marketing and promotion campaigns to capture public interest has become.

There was HD DVD on the one side, in the midst of a $300 million marketing campaign, which launched a separate Europe Promotion group and hired a German TV host to moderate presentations from several European and North American executives in front of an estimated 500 press attendees. And then there was Blu-ray, which did not have a moderator at all; instead, the chairman of the European Blu-ray Disc Association promotion group and a Sony Computer Entertainment Europe executive handled their presentations in front of roughly 200 journalists, even without the help of a PR representative.

Most HD DVD presenters, including Microsoft's Jordi Ribas, focused on highlighting HD DVD's advantages, especially in audio output. Ribas mentioned that 2.5 million HD DVD players had sold by the end of 2006. He pointed to the Xbox 360 HD DVD drive, which apparently has become the best ever selling accessory with a price tag of at least $100. "We are trying to manufacture as many as we can," he said.

HD DVD seems to have also an edge in the segment of slim PC drives, where the format is said to be outselling Blu-ray by a factor of 7:3. "HD DVD is better and the format is exploding worldwide," Ribas noted. And there was some news about the format as well: Alpine, for example, is developing an HD DVD player for cars - not just to play videos put to play huge audio libraries from the disc as well. A separate demonstration of the HD DVD interactive layer provided first insight in what HD DVD menus will look like in the future: Users will be able to set bookmarks with a screen-capture feature and, of course, they will be able to download additional content, such as skins for menus, additional language files or movie trailers that will be stored in the HD DVD player's memory.

Alpine car HD DVD player

Today's HD DVD sales, according to the HD DVD promotion group, are doing well. Journalists were told that consumers are "buying titles at an astonishing rate," with 40% of HD DVD player owners buying a new movie every week. Ken Graffeo, executive vice president of marketing of Universal Studios Home Entertainment, said that despite the 5:1 hardware advantage Blu-ray currently has (because of PS3 shipments), HD DVD s selling just as many movies as Blu-ray. "It is too early to declare victory," Graffeo said, "But we will do just as well in Europe as we did in the U.S."

So, what does the Blu-ray camp say about these claims? As it turns out, it really depends on what numbers you are looking at. Sony agreed that Blu-ray hardware is outselling HD DVD at a factor of 5:1, thanks to the Playstation 3, which has been shipped 1.84 million times until the end of 2006 and will launch with 1 million available units at its Europe launch on March 23. However, Sony claims, Blu-ray movies are outselling HD DVD movies by close to 3:1. According to Sony's director of AV technology, David Walstra, the HD DVD group is counting in the movies sold in Europe, while there won't be any Blu-ray movies available in this region until March 23. From that date on, Sony believes that it will be outselling HD DVD at the same rate as it does in the U.S.

The Blu-ray group did not have flashy demos to match the HD DVD press conference, but announced that it will be shipping 4x BD-R discs "within a few weeks." These discs will be able to deliver a sustained data write rate of 144 Mb/s, compared to the current 72 Mb/s. Media and recorders that support 4x speed are expected to become available during Q2 of this year.

In the end, the group believes that Blu-ray is strong enough to replace HD DVD. According to a press release that quoted Frank Simonis, chairman of the European arm of the Blu-ray Disc Association, the group expects Blu-ray to become "the successor format to the DVD within three years." Walstra, however went a step further and told us that he believes that Blu-ray will win the battle within one year.

He based this claim not only on the fact that the PS3 will drive adoption of Blu-ray across the globe, but also the fact that Blu-ray can claim superior support fro movie studios at this time. "Seven out of the eight big studios support Blu-ray. There is only Universal that is exclusive to HD DVD. In the end it will be content and the studios that will determine the outcome of this format war," Walstra said. But he conceded that, until either Blu-ray or HD DVD can claim victory, it is really the consumer who is on the losing end - because anyone could end up with the losing-format HD player in the end.

And just in case you wonder, both the salmon as well as the doughnuts were excellent.