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The Culture of War

Mar 5th, 2008
The hype of gloom and doom

I’m amazed that Blu-ray Disc can’t be left alone to enjoy its victory and we can’t be left alone finally to bring the motion picture experience into our homes with the absolute best high definition deliver vector conceived to date. No sooner had Blu-ray Disc won the format war than certain pundits and writers started publishing columns calling it a pyrrhic victory and suggesting that the war is not over; HD downloads are now the “big” challenger. And Toshiba’s CEO has made some rather bizarre statements in a Wall Street Journal interview that seems to be intended to discourage consumers from buying Blu-ray Disc players and media. And in answer to a question no one asked, another pretender to the HD disc throne has declared HD DVD’s demise a great opportunity for its proprietary player. All utter rubbish…

Misguided Pundits

One author claims that the slowdown of disc sales indicates a transition away from physical media and toward downloads. The author doesn’t get it right. DVD sales have slowed because: a) the studios have almost exhausted their back catalogs and are releasing far fewer discs; and, b) some DVD purchasers stopped buying standard definition discs when they bought high definition disc players (some even stopped buying in anticipation of picking up an HD disc player as soon as the war was resolved – at least that’s what some of you have shared with me). I think Sony alone sold more than two million BDs in 2007, and that’s only one studio and one format. And when the author lumped BD and HD DVD with DVD as the sales decline was described, it implied that HD disc sales were declining as well. This is utterly untrue. Sales of high definition discs are growing at a rate that exceeds the growth of DVD during its same initial period of a decade ago.

There is absolutely no question that video downloads are being pursued by multiple entities. But quality is still unacceptable; QAM256 HD on cable is better than the best: Apple’s HD service. And as I wrote in a previous column, several companies who tried the download business pulled the plug in the third or fourth quarter of 2007 as unprofitable.

A doomsday article made a price comparison that was disingenuous. I just bought three or four BDs that I could not review without seeming like a pig to my fellow reviewers. The prices ranged from $16.45 to $19.95 at Amazon with free shipping, not the $30 each cited in the article. And even though that cost is more than $5 downloads, the images are infinitely superior, the sound is overwhelmingly lossless (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD, or uncompressed PCM – something download services don’t offer), they have extensive supplements, I can play them as many times as I want whenever I want, and they will last for decades.

Most important of all, as I tried to explain in my article Of Resolution, Bit Rates, And Scaling, not all HD is high definition. Don’t believe my projections in that article of quality based on the theoretical associated with bit rates, the need for low pass filtering, and spatial resolution? A kind reader sent a link to magnified and cropped comparisons of DVD, QAM256 cable HD, Apple TV HD, and Blu-ray Disc. Look for the individual panes of glass in some of the windows. Apple’s image makes them almost invisible; it’s marginally better than DVD. HD on cable is better, and BD is clearly best.

(By the way, that Apple comparison article makes a price comparison that’s inaccurate. You can pick up a Sony Profile 1.0 BDP-S300 for about $325; the Profile 2.0 BDP-S350 will probably have a street price of about $330. The author asserts a $600 cost for the BD player.)

And here’s an excerpt from a kind note I received from a discriminating reader: “I headed over to my local Apple Store to get a look at the new software and HD content. They are demoing it on a Pioneer 42". Not sure if it is a plasma or LCD panel. I looked at a few HD clips from Pirates, Die Hard 4.0 and Ratatouille. The first two were OK - better than standard DVD but not near broadcast HD. The Rat looked pretty bad to my shock. I have no idea what the file sizes or the data rates are.”

From what I gather, Apple’s convenience is high and the quality leaves much to be desired. 720p at 4 Mbps? Not even remotely close to BD. I’m gratified that several readers wrote to say they trusted my judgment and asked me to review the Apple service. I got in touch with the person in charge of distributing Apple TV appliance review samples. After a delay that might have been related to researching my writings and this site, I was told that my request could not be fulfilled at this time, but that I should call back in a month or so. I can’t help wonder if Apple is concerned about an unbiased but potentially critical review.

Some consumers will try downloads. They will enjoy the convenience. The undiscriminating will accept the questionable quality. Those who care about experiencing film as the director intended will not compromise; they will buy and enjoy Blu-ray Disc.

I will never deny that sometime in the future bit rates to the door will meet or exceed that of Blu-ray Disc. But for the infrastructure to be put in place on a national basis with a consequential growth in the popularity of HD download services that could render BD a niche delivery vector will take no less than a decade, possibly two. I won’t wait. I’ll enjoy the motion picture theater experience in my home now.

Pundits spreading doom and gloom have got the significance of downloads completely wrong.

Toshiba’s Chief Executive Officer Atsutoshi Nishida was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and he made several rather startling statements.

The first involves scaling, “If you watch standard DVDs on our [DVD] players, the images are of very high quality because they include an ‘upconverting’ feature. And we're going to improve this even more, so that consumers won't be able to tell the difference from HD DVD images. The players would be much cheaper than Blu-ray players too. Next-generation DVD players are in a much weaker position than when standard DVD players were first introduced.”

Wow… Perhaps Mr. Nishida was thinking of a screen size of nineteen or twenty inches and a viewing angle of less than twenty degrees, but on anything larger, the six times greater spatial resolution of true high definition is remarkable. As far as scaling standard definition is concerned, you cannot get something for nothing. Standard definition carries just so much spatial information. You cannot create or correctly deduce the missing spatial data. Revisit my article Of Resolution, Bit Rates, And Scaling in which I discuss scaling in much more detail. Even the softer HD DVDs among those I’ve been reviewing for nearly two years look undeniably better than the best DVDs (and I have four separate and capable means to scale my DVDs to 1080p). And if Toshiba truly felt that scaled DVDs look as good as HD DVDs, why did Toshiba invest so heavily in a format it didn’t believe would bring any benefit to its customers? Sorry, Mr. Nishida, your errant claim smacks of anti-BD resentment.

When asked about Toshiba’s pursuing the HD video download market, he replied, “That's what we're hoping. We've been developing technologies in this area already, but now that we don't have the HD DVD business, I want to put even more energy into that.”

Toshiba had already stated that it had absolutely no plans to produce a Blu-ray Disc player. So rather than tap into that market, Toshiba would apparently like to once again go into competition with Blu-ray Disc with a delivery vector that can’t provide the quality of HD DVD, much less BD. We can expect more advertising campaigns to evoke fear, confusion, and misinformation among mainstream consumers. Sigh.

On a slightly related topic, Toshiba apparently believes that there is future profitability in manufacturing the Cell Microprocessor found in IBM computer clusters and in Sony's PS3 game consoles (and, if I had my way, in future Sony dedicated BD players). Sony sold a Cell processor manufacturing plant to Toshiba for $835 million dollars according to a report by Reuters. As I previously wrote, Toshiba, IBM, and Sony were the principle developers of the Cell Microprocessor, but unlike IBM and Sony, Toshiba never used it in any of its products. The timing of the deal has many industry analysts speculating that this might have been a Sony concession to Toshiba; the deal was struck shortly after Toshiba pulled out of HD DVD.

The Answer To The Question No One Asked

A company called New Medium Enterprises is pushing yet another HD disc format. It’s called VMD, it’s based on red laser technology, and it accommodates the high storage requirements of HD with a multiplicity of layers. Although VMD claims as many as twenty layers for a capacity of 100 GB, the current manufacturing technology only supports discs with 30 GB of capacity (that’s a familiar number).

Chief Executive Officer Geoff Russell was quoted as saying, “The way is now clear for VMD to be embraced by the industry, our technology is robust and our format is clearly equal to the quality required to deliver a true HD experience for the consumer at a price they are prepared to afford.”

Never mind that VMD isn’t supported by any Hollywood studio or any consumer electronics manufacturers or any U.S. retailer. And although VMD had previously announced that films would be available by late 2007, to date they are no-shows at Webtailers.

NME is undeterred. Board Chairman Michael Solomon said, “[We have] developed the VMD technology independently and are poised to come to market in several territories in the next quarter. All indications are that VMD can fill the void left by HD-DVD for a hungry production industry and rapidly growing HD-screen enabled consumer market.”

Déjà vu… I’m propelled back to the early days of DVD when Circuit City made a misguided effort to sell special players compatible with their limited-lifetime discs in an attempt to capture a market that was to be dominated by the DVDs we enjoyed for a decade. Despite the lower cost of the Circuit City product, real DVDs prevailed. Can you spell DIVX?

Parting Thoughts

Blu-ray Disc won the war. It deserved to win. It unquestionably provides the best high definition home presentation that today’s technology can deliver. Don’t be deceived by pretenders to the throne. If you want the best, BD delivers it. The economies of scale will bring prices down. Sony CEO Stan Glasgow was recently quoted as saying, “I don't think $200 is going to happen this year. Next year $200 could happen. We'll be at a $300 rate this year; $299 will happen this year.” Supply and demand are currently affecting price levels; there have been reports of sales surges of Blu-ray Disc players and PS3s since Toshiba retired HD DVD.  Glasgow explained that Sony is “struggling to keep up with the demand.”

I know that you’re sufficiently discriminating to want the best for your home theater. It’s my hope that mainstream consumers will discover and appreciate the clarity of Blu-ray Disc's visuals and the superiority of its audio, embrace the fomat, and make it as financially successful and popular as DVD has ever been.