Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Format War Ends: Blu-Ray Victorious

Early this morning, February 19th, 2007, Toshiba announced that it would discontinue making and marketing HD-DVD technology, thus officially ending what may be the last media format war in history. Church bells around the country ring out to celebrate the international digital media peace pact, but in the trenches and battlefields of the consumer market, many customers are left crippled or dying. For some, the news comes as a joy just to see the hostilities desist, regardless of the winner. For still others, the armistice has little meaning, signaling the end of a war almost as remote and vaguely-understood to the average person as the Persian Gulf Wars (there was more than one?).

Should you care? No. Well, yes… maybe a little. While the smoke clears and the corporate soldiers collect their spoils, I’d like to share some ruminations and remembrances.

The High-Definition Format War (HDFW) was notable less for its physical carnage, high body count and strategic maneuvering than for its devastating psychological effects on the hearts and minds of our nation. Die-hard enthusiasts led somewhat feeble armies against each other, emerging as heroes or martyrs in their own minds, but generally serving only to drive the civilian populace into the suburban hills, where they held out until the fighting had ceased. Most could hardly distinguish the red-coats from the blu-coats and didn’t care to get involved.

Blu-Ray was marginally technologically and tactically superior. HD-DVD had safer supply lines and more industrial backing, but suffered due to a recruitment and ally shortage. Blu-Ray had higher capacity per layer and faster bitrates for data transferring, but the cost per disc was slightly higher (on the order of about 10 cents) and the cost for switching over the manufacturing plants and menu/feature programmers added more. HD-DVD was smart enough to go region-free and was cheaper, but had no technological advantage.

It is thus somewhat surprising, though hardly sad, that Blu-Ray won out. Cheaper usually makes all the difference to the largely uncaring public. This is why there is a McDonald’s on every corner, but your Uncle’s burger joint went out of business. It’s why we were stuck squinting at Gameboys when the Lynx had backlighting, power-save, more colors and support for left-handed players (I’m still not over that one). Perhaps more relevantly, it’s why all we now have VHS’s gathering dust in our closet shelves when we could be having Betamaxes gathering moon-dust on our private space-yachts (OK, OK, it didn’t really set us back that much). The best news, though, is that Blu-Ray’s one major disadvantage is fleeting. The higher cost is largely transitional, and the second wave is expected to drop in price. (If we continue to get gouged it’s because Sony hates us, not because it is actually costing them a fortune.)

Every war does have its victims, but at least this time it wasn’t the children. Toshiba, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and countless consensual consumers can be counted amongst the causalities. Yet in the economic arena, war is often quite lucrative. Movie industry companies along the volatile HDFW border, like Netflix, Blockbuster and the studios HAD to choose sides (or at least bite the bullet and support both), but the civilian population was never drafted. For once the cowardly and the shell-shocked behaved exactly like the savvy and simply laid low. Meanwhile the arms race led to better arms, and we got all sorts of ancillary perks we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Forced to compete in a macabre fight to the death, technology continued to improve, new coatings increased durability and hardware costs dove. You just didn’t see that back in VHSnam where technological turnaround wasn’t fast or practical.

So if there is reason to care, I’d say there’s reason to celebrate. Proudly wave a flag, any flag, and don’t mind if a couple of jaded vets are still licking their wounds. Still… I’m guessing that the victory will be short-lived, that the fireworks will soon fizzle and that, a decade from now, the survivors will not bother to bore their grandchildren with war stories. The reason? Formats are becoming as irrelevant as swordsmen in a battle between satellites exchanging missiles.

Digital storage just means a pile of 1s and 0s. You can put those just about anywhere and exchange them rather quickly. They can skip just about every step that used to involve factories, warehouses, stores and computer drives. I suspect that before another format war can ravage the land, downloadable content will have pacified the proletariat and sent the warlords packing. Thumb-drives are already making HDFW capacity propaganda seem as silly as VD prevention videos in WWII. Sony should shower in gemstones why they can, because the decline of the format empire is just around the corner.


Mad Dog said...

HD-DVD had more than just cheap costs to its advantage. It also had way more functionality out of the gate and a better video codec than Blu-ray did at the start. Not only that, but it was able to have a twin-disc format to soothe the consumer with the disc having a DVD side, too. Blu-ray may have caught up with the PIP feature, but they STILL offer nothing that involves Internet connectivity. And most of the existing Blu-ray players still aren't compliant with the latest Blu-ray profile 1.1.

On the bright side, at least my HD-DVD version of the five-disc edition of Blade Runner is worth precisely $1.


jim vacek said...

very interesting essay, and i think the comments and analogy about the industry contention are right on, including consumer indifference; although mad dog, aren't you still licking your wounds over the laser disc?

Neil Fulwood said...

"VHSnam" - inspired!

Mad Dog said...

Laserdisc I can do without because of the physical inconvenience and the fact that I didn't actually ever spend money on it personally.

FilmWalrus said...

Mad Dog,

Your right that I did not consider either software or hardware support issues, merely the medium itself. I suspect many customers cared as much or more about the players as the discs in choosing preferences.

Nigel M said...

I don't thinK I have the energy to buy my collection over again- I was late coming to DVD from VHS and now the next big thing is here.

I may just stock up on a few cheap multi region dvd players and ignore all future formats and wait for the dvd price crash that follows the collector stage.

I am jaded bvy the whole thing.

Consider this. Last weekend I watched Italian Lee Van Cleef vehicle "Escape From Death Row". Now that film looks like it had been taken from an original that had been stored in a stable or a sock drawer for decades. With dust and crackles and all manner of nasties- what could blu ray do to enhance that experience?

Maybe I am getting cynical in old age but as technology advances the films are getting worse and worse.

Mad Dog said...

Herman, are you trying to say that you prefer the imperfections of old masters or that you're dubious of the methods studios have to restore them?

FilmWalrus said...

I think that to a certain extent you are right to wonder if fans of low-budget, pre-digital age, relatively obscure genre and exploitation films have much to look forward to on blu-ray. With distributers unwilling (or financially unable) to restore such films, does the improved technology just mean a higher cost without any real gain?

Personally, I can't help but be a little excited about new technology (I'm a CS nerd after all), though I'm not keen on the cost or selection. Maybe other developments will lead to easier or cheaper restoration processes?

As for the quality of new films, I'm a deep believer that it just depends on how (and how hard) you look. With more people than ever able to create cinema, I've seen an increase in interesting films from around the world. Of course, your average Hollywood flick is remains slow to evolve, but even the studios deal an ace now and again.

Well, mustering that much optimism has exhausted me. Time to collapse into bed.

Nigel M said...

Mad dog, I think film Walrus here made my point better than i could-

"I think that to a certain extent you are right to wonder if fans of low-budget, pre-digital age, relatively obscure genre and exploitation films have much to look forward to on blu-ray."

I gave the example of Escape From Death Row as it is a budget obscurity that is unlikely to get the treatment to warrant a new crisper format, despite incidentally being an excellent fun movie.

But I guess you have hit on an interesting point here - to get the best from this format then for some titles this will lead to better restorations but for other titles they will I guess fallby the wayside.

I ve fallen for this twice now. I junked my vinyl and when I went dvd shopping found out that many of my albums and certaily most the singles *and corresponding b sides* were not available in that format. I did the same when I got rid of my ageing collection of VHS. Many titles I was able to replace- many others not.

Funnily enouh a large proportion of he stuff I am after is only available as dvd-r put out by hobbyists who exist in a legal grey area and transfer from old vhs.

So thats it really- where a new format will benefit bigger titles etc all I want is for the rest of Lucio Fulci's catalogue to get released- I would be more interested in a release of a subtitle track for La Pretora than a new format.

If there are benefits for me is that when the collecting boom ends there may be a dvd price crash, as happened recently with vhs.

On the quality issue highlighted by mr walrus, I don't really hold with the modern life is rubbish theory an while I have a certain nostalgia for 60's and 70's filone and its been a long time since I ve watched a film that I have enjoyed as much as Bava's Rabid Dogs or Django- this is not to say that I won't give contemporary stuff a shot-loved the descent for example or shane meadows dead mans shoes but really my heart is still with giallo and eurocrime from the 70s and 60s so unless blu ray is accompanied with a mass release of sergio martino or ruggero deodato films I will hold fire.

Note this is not to say I will ever dabble in the format but I will probably do what I did with dvd and games consoles, wait til about 10 years after they become fashionable then buy one. I picked up snes when everyone else had moved on to playstation 2- I got it and a box of games for the price of a couple of dvd's :)

If one of the first releases on Blu Ray turn out to be Lombardo Bava's Blastfighter then all bets are off- what I would give to see a quality release of that one.

Nigel M said...

the bit about films getting worse and worse incidentally was meant to be a joke, truth to tell the last new film I saw of any note aside from meadow etc was lord of the rings. I hear some good stuff is knocking about at the moment, though I haven't seen any of it personally hehe

and correction=

that should read (above)

Lamberto Bava, I was in contact with lombardo radice over weekend and got that name stuck in my head for some reason.