Format wars

The emergence of High Definition TV and the increasing demands placed on PC storage mean the time is now ripe for a successor to DVD.

Format wars

There’s just one problem. While the biggest players in the IT industry, the consumer electronics giants and the heads of Hollywood studios have put their best minds to work on the next-generation format, they haven’t come up with one successor, but two.

In other words, we’re in the middle of another ugly format war. One camp is pushing evolution, a format that develops on from DVD to make it easy for the industry and the consumers to make the change. The other is preaching revolution, a format offering higher capacities now and even more storage in the future. Both initiatives claim their victory is inevitable, but when Sony, Panasonic and Dell square off against Toshiba, Microsoft and Intel nothing can be so certain. This is the mother of all format wars.

Let’s cut through the marketing, the fighting talk, the groundless hype and technobabble, and see what each format has to offer and how it will affect data storage and home entertainment over the next five years.

Some History

Format wars are nothing new. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Sony tussled with JVC and Matsushita over the video cassette standard and we all know the result: Sony’s Betamax stalled, while its rival, VHS, became the standard consumer video format for nearly two decades. In the early 1990s, Sony and Philips pitched their Multimedia CD Digital Video Disc specification against Toshiba and Pioneer’s Super Disc system. It was only at the end of 1995 that the two sides reached agreement and DVD was born.

If only the fragile peace had lasted. The DVD-Video and DVD-ROM formats were released before a recordable format could be agreed. While the existing DVD Forum opted for a record-once standard (DVD-R) and two rewritable systems (DVD-RW and DVD-RAM), Sony and Philips pushed ahead with rival technologies (DVD+R and DVD+RW). Despite all the claims and counter claims, this format war was never won. PC writers and consumer DVD recorders embraced both systems and, in terms of media sales, the two remain neck and neck.

Yet by any standard, the DVD format has been a huge success. In the ten years since it was launched, over 75 per cent of UK households have bought a player and software sales have grown enormously year on year – over 211 million DVDs were sold in the UK in 2005 alone.

In the PC field, DVD has become equally ubiquitous: all but the cheapest budget systems now come with a DVD writer, while sales of recordable media more than doubled between 2004 and 2005, with an estimated 3.6 billion discs sold worldwide last year. That’s expected to rise to over 5 billion during 2006.

But DVD can’t last forever and it came as little surprise when those searching for its successor also split into two rival camps. In February 2002, Sony, Philips, Pioneer, Hitachi, Matsushita, Sharp, LG, Thomson and Samsung announced Blu-ray Disc – a next-generation optical disc system similar to DVD, but using a blue/violet laser to read and write. In August 2002, Toshiba and NEC announced a rival system, Advanced Optical Disc (AOD), which was to be proposed to the DVD Forum as the legitimate follow-up to DVD. Tellingly, Blu-ray was never submitted to the forum, which, incidentally, Toshiba chaired. Its backers considered it a new technology, and nothing to do with the existing format.

In April 2003, Sony launched its BDZ-S77 Blu-ray disc recorder at just under $4,000. The device used MPEG2 encoding to record two hours of high-definition satellite TV. One year later, Panasonic launched a similar model. In the meantime, AOD was under consideration by the DVD Forum – it was accepted in November 2003 and renamed HD DVD. At the time, the first drives and players were optimistically expected in late 2004. In fact, the first batch have only just arrived in the US and Japan.

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