The HD-DVD / Blu-Ray debacle — and an alternative solution

| July 15, 2006

UPDATE (08/11/06): Slashdot has a story about how the first Blu-Ray drives won’t play Blu-Ray movies. Sheesh. The companies really don’t want to succeed, do they? (And welcome, Slashdotters! Feel free to look around a bit.)

Jay Wrolstad at Personal Tech has a story that says that there will be no clear winner in HD-DVD v. Blu-Ray.

UPDATE (07/18/06): Here are a few articles (hat tip to Google News) on the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray issue. The first is a hands-on review of a consumer Blu-Ray player from someone who has previously looked at an HD-DVD player. The second is a direct head-to-head review of a Blu-Ray player vs. an HD-DVD player. Note that the reviewer in the second article does not share my opinion regarding the pitfalls of the dueling formats.

ORIGINAL POSTING: I believe that the future of consumer movie distribution may well be via solid-state technology. Let me explain.

I remember the first time I ever saw — and heard — a compact disc (CD). It was at Wayne Holder’s house (“The Oasis”) in San Diego; the year, I believe, was 1984. The CD was Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless” — still one of my favorite albums, though this was the first time I ever heard it. I was fascinated by its, well, compactness, as well as its robustness and clean sound compared to vinyl records.

A year or so later, in mid-1985, I was going through some tough times, personally. As an anodyne, I went to Tower Records and spent $500 for a Sony D-5 Discman CD player, along with a set of nice headphones. I picked up the Thomas Dolby album, plus a Star Wars soundtrack and a few other CDs. At that time, the entire inventory of CDs for sale at Tower took up a single 7′ x 4′ display; the rest of the store held vinyl records, cassette tapes, and, for all I know, possibly some 8-track tapes as well.

In an amazingly short number of years, those proportions would be reversed: CDs would dominate at “record” stores and other music media (vinyl, tape, etc.) would occupy less and less display space, while CD players dropped to a tenth of their original price (not even adjusting for inflation). The whole process was repeated a decade or so later with DVD technology killing off video tapes.

Both cases are textbook examples of how to displace an entrenched technology: provide a clearly superior and standardized alternative that can be used in parallel with existing solutions until those existing solutions wither away. Consider each of those points:

  • The alternative has to be clearly superior in one or more ways — so much so that the consumer has to be willing not only to spend money on it but to learn how to use it and to put up with some of the bumps and fits of adopting a new solution.
  • The alternative has to be standardized so as to achieve broad support and use, including from third-party firms.
  • The alternative has to be able to be used in parallel with the consumer’s existing solution rather than require the consumer to abandon his/her current solution and all the financial, emotional, and intellectual investment in that solution.
  • The alternative needs to expand in utility and functionality, and decrease in cost, until the user is willing to let go of his/her prior solution.

The key word there, by the way, is “standardized”. Other digital audio media formats emerged (DAT, MiniDisk, etc.), but never gained any significant market share; DVDs were actually preceeded by other digital video formats (LaserDisc, etc.), which likewise never achieved significant market share. For that matter, the iPod — however nifty its design — would be just another niche MP3 player if Apple hadn’t released iTunes for both MacOS and Windows.

So now we come to the next generation solutions for video playback: HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. During the years that these technologies were under development, technophiles hoped and prayed that the respective consortia would merge their research and standardize upon a single format. They failed to do so, and the result, I believe, will be failure for both formats, with both limited to market niches.

Consider the criteria listed above:

  • Clearly superior alternative. The key word here is “clearly”. Any consumer can see the physical difference between a CD and a vinyl record, or between a DVD and a VHS tape. Likewise, most consumers could quickly tell the difference in playback among the media. However, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray media look just like CDs and DVDs, so the physical comparison is out. And while HD-DVD and Blu-Ray support high-definition video playback, most consumers won’t see the different unless (a) they have HD-capable TV sets and (b) the film or show involved looks visibly better in HD than it does on a regular DVD playback.
  • Standardized to attract broad support. Nope. Instead, we had — and still have — different movie studios, hardware manufacturers, and even software vendors choosing up sides. This is a recipe for disaster. Most major movie studios (Universal excepted) have since relented and announced support for both formats. Still, as a consumer, I’m going to feel that by adopting, say, Blu-Ray, I am somehow excluding myself from the options available were I to adopt HD-DVD – and vice versa.
  • Can be used in parallel with existing solutions. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players will play regular DVDs, so that’s not a problem. On the other hand, as noted above, unless the consumer has HD-capable TV sets or video projectors, s/he just won’t see much of a difference.
  • Needs to expand in functionality until existing solution goes away. Here’s another key problem. Say that I’m a movie studio — Paramount, for example. I am currently committed to releasing my movies in DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats — which means that I have to do the appropriate mastering, editing, and so in for each format. Now, at what point am I willing to drop DVD support altogether? Besides the millions of DVD players hooked up to home TVs, you also have DVD players in computers, in cars, in portable DVD units, and so on.

None of these problems is insurmountable — but they will all take time to resolve, and in the meantime they will significantly slow down the adoption of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray technology. And I suspect that before they do, a new video technology that does meet the criteria above will come along and push them aside.

The most touted one is video download via the ‘net. But given the erratic and often poor performance of “broadband” net access here in the US, I think that such a solution will largely be focused on catching (non-HD) episodes of TV shows. Downloading of DVD- or HD-quality movies will require some significant advances in both technology and infrastructure and could also be impacted by the current issues surrounding “net neutrality“.

Instead, I suspect that the next video technology will be based on flash memory or something very similar — that is, solid state storage rather than optical storage. The heavy adoption of flash memory in digital cameras, USB drives, PDAs, and MP3 players, and its growing use within laptops and ultra-small computers, has kept Moore’s Law working overtime. You can currently buy a 2GB SD card for about $90 — Moore’s Law would suggest that a 4GB flash drive (roughly the capacity of a regular DVD) would cost about $3 in another 10 years or so, and that doesn’t take into account the possible cost savings by making the flash memory read-only. Adoption could come even earlier by re-using more expensive flash memory devices as containers that can be refilled at your local Blockbuster Video or a kiosk at the grocery store.

Consider such a solution — let’s call it Flash Video (FV) — in light of the above criteria:

  • Clearly superior alternative. Physically, FV would look quite different — and smaller — than a DVD or HD-DVD/Blu-Ray disk: probably about 1″ square, though possibly a touch larger so that one can actually see the cover art on it. You could fit a hundred such FV cards in a little tray about 1″ long by 1″ high and 15″ long. The FVs would be less susceptible to the scratches, decay and other damage that the various DVD formats suffer and would not require cleaning. The FV player itself would have few or no moving parts (no rotation mechanism, no tray, etc.), another significant advance in reliability. And the FV player could just as easily support writable FV as read-only FV, so you wouldn’t repeat the years-long delay that occured between the introduction of DVDs and the release of DVD recorders (which, frankly, are still a pain and are largely supplanted by DVRs that record straight to hard disk).
  • Standardized to attract broad support. This could be a challenge, but there’s an easy solution. I have several computers now that accept four of the major flash memory standards (SD, CF, xD, Memory Stick) — each just requires a small slot. Should a single FV standard not emerge, it would be little problem to support several standards.
  • Can be used in parallel with existing solutions. Given the general component nature of home theater systems, this is not a signficant problem. Plus, since FV players would not require the laser-plus-flywheel construction of DVD/HD-DVD/Blu-Ray players, they would likely be much smaller. Furthermore, the technology can be built into DVD players and, for that matter, can supplant all existing digital media: cameras, music, camcorder, voice recorder, etc.
  • Needs to expand in functionality until existing solution goes away. Moore’s Law will continue to expand the capacity of FV without need for new standards for reading and writing — a vast advantage over optical DVD media. I suspect that within 10 years of the introduction of FV, DVD production would cease and DVD players would vanish just as VHS players have largely vanished.

In short, this hypothetical Flash Video (FV) standard meets the criteria of a displacing technology far better than either HD-DVD or Blu-Ray. And since consumers are being asked, for the most part, to choose between the two new DVD standards, there’s a good chance they will choose neither.

Frankly, the biggest roadblock to an FV solution is not technological — we’re already solving all those problems. It’s regulatory: the RIAA, MPAA and US Congress seem to be doing their best to replace US copyright law with “digital rights management”. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Comments, as always, are welcomed. ..bruce..

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Category: Information Technology, Main

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (5)

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  1. Brian says:

    Very good read. And I must say, you should patent “FlashVideo” before somebody else steals it 🙂
    *shifty eyes*

  2. Prinny_Baal says:

    Heh, Very good very good.

    I like the concept you made, and i understand the problems. Still i think with some luck, we might see something very interesting coming up with blu-ray. if they DO manage to get it to run…

    Have fun 😉

  3. Scooper says:

    LaserDiscs were analog technology.