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Pax Optical

Some suggest the conflict between Blu-ray Disc (BD) and HD DVD can be resolved by simply offering devices compatible with both formats. I’m not so sure. It’s easy to paint a rosy picture of peaceful coexistence, but compromise comes at a price.

Pax Optical

Hugh Bennett
EMedialive, Apr 3, 2007

“I came not to bring peace, but the sword.” Matt. 10:34

Some suggest the conflict between Blu-ray Disc (BD) and HD DVD can be resolved by simply offering devices compatible with both formats. I’m not so sure. It’s easy to paint a rosy picture of peaceful coexistence, but compromise comes at a price.

Schemes for various HD DVD/BD hybrids have been afoot since it first became apparent that both formats were headed to market. One such kludge, of course, is Warner Home Video’s upcoming Total Hi Def (THD) that combines HD DVD and BD content on opposite sides of the same disc. Hopefully my last column (see The Truth About Total Hi Def Disc) debunks the myth that THD solves anything. It is, in fact, just a counterproductive gimmick. Others endorse a hardware approach in which the player, drive, or recorder accommodates HD DVD and BD discs. An idea championed by a few software developers, component manufacturers and industry analysts, the first co-ed player from LG Electronics is just hitting the streets with a soon-to-follow computer recorder that reads and writes BD as well as reads HD DVD. But are such hybrids realistic?

As with THD, the feasibility of a hardware solution is an all or nothing proposition—in order to render the format gender-gap moot for consumers, it’s necessary for all device manufacturers to immediately and unconditionally jump on the bandwagon. However, given profoundly entrenched strategic, political, ideological, economic, competitive, and even personal positions, how likely is it that Toshiba or Panasonic, for instance, would offer universal versions of all their player models and do so globally? Or Sony with its already multi-million strong army of PlayStation 3 consoles? Fouling the market with a hodgepodge of hybrids as well as discrete HD DVD and BD units could make a puzzling situation only worse.

I’m also concerned about the false sense of long-term security hybrid devices engender. Quite simply, what happens if either HD DVD or BD eventually goes belly up? Will manufacturers continue to produce co-ed hardware or just callously drop the defunct format from future offerings? If so, consumers could be stuck with obsolete movie, software, and data collections just as if they purchased HD DVD or BD-only units. As with any insurance policy, it pays to read the fine print.

To my mind, HD DVD/BD hybrids are technological pack rats that create more problems than they solve. Designing, fabricating, marketing, supporting, selecting, and owning too much stuff inevitably leads to increased cost, confusion, complexity, and mediocrity. For example, even with co-ed players, won’t the usual suspects still author, test, produce, and offer HD DVD and BD, retailers carry both, and customers have to choose? The situation with writable is even bleaker.

If hybrid devices are to be truly credible, they must be compatible with the entire pantheon of disc types from past and present format families. In practice this means that every co-ed consumer electronics player and recorder, computer drive, and burner must forever read and write all CDs (ROM/R/RW), DVDs (ROM/±R/±RW/±R DL/±RW DL/RAM/CSS-MR), BDs (ROM/R/RE/Hybrid SL & DL) and HD DVDs (ROM/Twin/R/RW/RAM SL & DL). Again, will all manufacturers embrace universality or just pick and choose? Add to this the dog’s breakfast resulting from escalating reading and recording speeds, new and incompatible high-performance disc types and media with various printable surfaces (LightScribe, LabelFlash, inkjet, thermal, re-transfer, hub, non-hub), not to mention the triple (HD DVD) and four to eight-layer (BD) types manufacturers keep waving in our faces? Pity us all.

The problem is also cumulative. Despite the naysayers, optical storage still has a bright future, with multi-layer, two-photon absorption, near-field SIL, Super-RENS, holographic, or what have you. But each time manufacturers offer devices that accommodate every disc format on the market they risk dooming future generations to build in past complications and inherit any genetic defects.

Hardware manufacturers are already spread thinly and have limited resources to properly develop, test, and sustain both HD DVD and BD technologies (on top of legacy formats). Additional baggage translates into increased costs as well as slower advancements and diminished quality (long the case for DVD recorders)—non-optimized write strategies, inferior legacy support, incomplete features, inconsistent compatibility, variable writing quality resulting in poor media performance and archivability, etc. Surely, rather than suffer a Swiss Army knife, it’s in everyone’s best interest to have devices do a few things very well. In the face of consumer commitment, satisfaction with DVD as well as mounting competition (video on demand, illegal/legal downloading, streaming, etc.), it was enormously shortsighted to launch two high-definition formats.

But there’s no going back. Rather than an easy fix, hybrid HD DVD/BD devices are little more than flawed cop-outs that seek to let the optical storage and entertainment industries off the hook for their lack of common sense and seeming indifference to customer needs and interests. Like it or not, only time and struggle can possibly sort out this mess.

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

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