HP requests feature additions to Blu-ray disc technology

UPDATED 20 Oct 2005 11:50 am EST

Palo Alto (California) - In a reversal of its public position on its support of technologies included in the prospective Blu-ray Disc standard, Hewlett-Packard has issued an open request to the Blu-ray Disc Association to include two technologies whose absence from Blu-ray was the subject of complaints from Intel and Microsoft.

According to a press release, HP has appealed to the BDA for the inclusion of managed copy, which enables individuals to make licensed backup copies of legally-obtained discs, either to backup discs or to hard drives for streaming throughout a networked household; and iHD, the interactive functionality layer developed by Microsoft and Disney. Blu-ray currently does not support managed copy, and has currently adopted Blu-ray Disc Java (BDJ) as its interactive layer; iHD is based instead on XML. Both managed copy and iHD are current features of the competing HD DVD high-def format, developed by members of the DVD Forum responsible for the present consumer DVD format.

"The move reflects HP's desire to ensure that customers are not forced to choose between competing HD formats for DVDs," reads HP's statement, released late this afternoon. "HP has determined that Managed Copy and iHD will address the fundamental technical needs of the PC and help create a seamless experience throughout the digitally connected home." The statement goes on to state that Blu-ray's adoption of mandatory managed copy will make the consumer's experience more consistent across all types of next-generation content. Movie studios that are also BDA members, including 20th Century-Fox, are on record as opposing mandatory managed copy, since some studios may prefer retaining the right to decide which discs can be copied by consumers, and which cannot.

In an exclusive interview with Tom's Hardware Guide last month, HP's director of strategic alliances for optical storage solutions, Josh Peterson, told us Blu-ray Disc would effectively contain managed copy features anyway, stating, "It's not a function of the format; it's a function of the content protection system." The implication was that the absence of managed copy in the Blu-ray format specification, wouldn't mean consumers won't have access to it in Blu-ray components.

Peterson characterized Fox and other BDA member studios' position as being staunchly supportive of managed copy, but without the mandatory option. "The way studios author the disc, they have to enable managed copy," he told us. AACS, which is one copy protection element enabled by both Blu-ray and HD DVD, is where managed copy is housed and maintained, said Peterson. "But the studios also have to enable it for it to be possible." He went on to refer to Fox as "very supportive of the concept of managed copy, and controlled distribution of content within the hope, and they're one of the most staunch supporters of very robust content protection, yet they're very adamant that they need to make it very user-friendly as well."

HP's statement today, stating that mandatory managed copy "allows consumers to make legitimate copies of their HD movies and enjoy this content around the home or across their network," reflects an obvious change of position for this company.

Its announced support of iHD marks yet another U-turn, and an indication that Intel's and Microsoft's arguments may have made some headway after all. Last month, we talked to Jordi Ribas, Microsoft's director of technology strategy for Windows Digital Media, who is a co-designer of iHD. He told us then that Microsoft and Disney (a BDA member) originally worked together to produce iHD for any format, not just the two high-def formats under consideration. "We had a joint vision on how to create a very simple-to-author interactivity layer that would be very easy for the studios to use," said Ribas, "that would use Web-like tools such as XML, and that would make it very easy for a creative person that did not need to be a software programmer, to be able to create interactivity menus and applications for optical media."

Ribas went on to say last month "the vast majority of studios prefer iHD over BDJ, because it's easier to author, you can have your creative people involved, it's cheaper, [and] it's got all these benefits." One of the benefits he mentioned was the ability to include superimposed video in a commentary track, so that a director's or commentator's image can appear on top of the movie, while the viewer is playing the "Making Of" commentary.

In our interview with HP's Josh Peterson last month, he told us that Microsoft approached the BDA with a proposal to adopt iHD. "There was a task force put together within the BDA," Peterson said, "to do a very thorough examination of the two technologies, side-by-side, considering features and licensing terms and schedule, and at the end of the day, when all the data was presented to the board of directors of the Blu-ray Disc Association, it was a very lopsided vote in favor of sticking with Blu-ray Disc Java (BDJ)." He went on to say, "Java is a very robust, proven technology for interactive features that exist today on set-top boxes and cell phones and portable media devices. It's a very proven technology for interactive software. So we feel very comfortable."

What a difference three weeks makes. "Next-generation HD movies will provide a level of interactive experience well beyond that of today's conventional DVDs," reads HP's press release this afternoon. "iHD technology provides a broad foundation to enable new interactivity with standards-based development tools and technologies. It will provide consumers with enhanced content, navigation and functionality for HD films. Furthermore, Microsoft plans to implement iHD support in its Windows Vista operating system, which will help ease implementation and provide a cost-effective solution for consumers." The concluding reference to Microsoft speaks volumes.

UPDATE 6:00 pm CT 10/19/05: In a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon, Microsoft corporate VP for the Media Entertainment Technology Convergence group, Blair Westlake, said, "HP is a valued partner and we believe their call for a unified format that ensures PC and connected device interoperability is in the best interest of consumers and the industry. We stand behind our original reasons for backing HD DVD - that there are features for consumers and content owners we believe are required in the next generation optical format, and that HD DVD has committed to those criteria. We'd like to see Blu-ray do the right thing and commit to these scenarios, avoiding a protracted format war that benefits no one. Our consistent goal is to ensure that those benefits come to life in the most rapid, cost efficient, consumer friendly way possible."

UPDATE 10:50 am CT 10/20/05: Speaking to Reuters, HP general manager of personal storage, Maureen Weber, said, "We're still supporting Blu-ray but we're very serious that we want these technologies. If in the end, they're supported in one and then not the other, we'll have to make a choice." Weber's comments appear to make it clear that HP is making more than a request, but a serious demand which may come with consequences. More updates throughout the day as news warrants.