Whole Blu World: The Format War's Bloody AftermathS

Click to viewThe format war. It's over. Done. Break out the blue victory hats and Curaçao, right? Wrong. There won't be a Blu-ray victory party. Don't take my word for it? How about Sony Electronics CEO Stan Glasgow's? "From our perspective, the battle really begins now." Now that HD DVD is dispatched, the members of Team Blu-ray can start fighting standard-def DVDs, digital downloads, consumer apathy, the Chinese and—of course—each other. Here's the current state of Blu-ray, post-war edition:

Everybody Hurts

It's been discussed at length how brutal this contest was for Toshiba. But the Blu-ray members in the victory circle are licking some pretty serious wounds, too. Sony basically bet their entire company on the format—plowing over a billion dollars into the PS3 trojan horse, plus, as far as we know, another half billion on largesse for studios to put on Blu's stripes, for starters.

Chris Walker, Pioneer's senior product manager for Blu-ray told us he thought that the format war "affected Blu-ray prices substantially," and that "for a new technology to drop the prices by half within a year of coming out" seriously hurt everyone involved. People are still ready to complain about the relatively high price of Blu-ray players, but they are way lower than the manufacturers had planned, and now they can't recoup the high fixed development costs they would have with higher price tags during the first couple years on the market. DVD players were stratospherically priced for several years.

On the studio side, the drawn-out conflict was sapping both HD disc and DVD sales, as consumers waited for a victor and slowed down DVD purchases in anticipation. Everybody was losing, even the winners. It got so bad that we have reason to believe Sony didn't just urge Best Buy, Netflix and Wal-Mart to go exclusively Blu, but went so far as to ask Toshiba directly to please pull out.

Their pain, you're pay-ing

Point is, a lot of money was spent to hoist Blu-ray onto the winner's pedestal. Why do you care? Because it means manufacturers aren't rushing to drop player prices any further than they have already. Walker admitted the only reason players are as cheap as they are—calling $399 a year after the format's introduction a "bargain"—is because of the format war. Interestingly, Walker also told us that low hardware margins are part of the reason Toshiba mostly stood alone in standalone player production: "Why would Pioneer want to build one when Toshiba was selling them at $150?"

So, while Pioneer promises healthy competition between Blu-ray Disc Association members this year, don't expect it to be too healthy—the big price-killer among them is the PS3, ironically. The major force that drove down DVD-player prices years ago was the flood of cheap Chinese models at Wal-Mart, and the BDA is holding them at bay, refusing to license the tech to low-cost manufacturers for the time being. Piracy is implied as a concern, but the more obvious motive is to keep player prices as high as they can, while they can, to recoup the heavy losses incurred waging the format war in the first place. A $199 player with a Sony name on it is definitely at least a year away.

Spec Wars, SKU Times

We've already told you
not to buy a Blu-ray player yet, citing the spec issue—if you buy a player without an Ethernet port, you're screwed when it comes to more updated specifications like BD-Live interactive content and picture-in-picture. But it's actually even crazier than we thought. When we finally see a geniune $199 Blu-ray player, it will more than likely be spec 1.1, so you'll get picture-in-picture, but there won't be any internet-fueled interaction, like that sweet-sounding AVP multiplayer game.

That's right, even after Blu-ray spec 2.0 players finally hit the market, new 1.1 spec players will continue to roll out as well, so the potential for consumer confusion will remain stratospheric. (Everyone should heed Sony CEO Stan Glasgow's own comment: "Any confusion curbs consumer demand.") See, the 2.0 spec is not mandatory for manufacturers, though 1.1 is. Consequently, the cheapest players we will see finally hitting shelves will be 1.1 (though all of Sony's actually will be 2.0 "capable" from here on out). Walker confirms that while he personally "would like to see BD-Live players only," even Pioneer "will be offering both types of players."

The different players will be labeled either "BonusView" or "BD-Live," not 1.1 or 2.0, which is good, because Glasgow doesn't "think consumers are that aware of 1.0, 2.0, whatever." Will they even know the difference between BonusView and BD-Live? Will they understand why a player they buy now won't access features on a disc they buy later, just because Sony says "that's the way it goes in the world"?

Content is King Queen

The spec issue is messy on the content front as well—and we're not just talking about clearly labeled discs. The 2.0 spec being optional on future players makes its feature set all the more frivolous—why spend a lot of money creating features only the richest Blu-ray users—a smaller fraction of an already tiny fraction—can access? For example, while Fox is definitely sporting wood for interactivity, others aren't as excited. Sony Home Entertainment biz dev VP Rich Marty told us it's "just the icing on the cake." Icing not everyone can lick.

On the other hand, things are mostly looking up on the new-release front for Blu—all of the major studios we talked to said that pretty much every major theatrical release will hit the format from here on out. It's the back catalog that's the prob, and it's going to be slow coming by most accounts. Not only will Universal probably take a very long time getting its current 150-disc HD DVD catalog out on Blu-ray, but other studios will most likely double dip, releasing the same movie a second time with better features and perhaps a cleaner transfer, before getting around to some of your favorite old chestnuts.

Speaking of Universal, we're currently looking at a months-long black hole of Universal, Dreamworks and Paramount's releases, thanks to their belated integration (or re-integration) into the Blu-ray fold. Not only will it be late spring or early summer before we see any of their flicks hit Blu, we're hearing that they might have trouble buying dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray discs to produce them on, because the more settled Blu-ray studios have already purchased the entire 2008 stock—not hard to do, thanks to the limited number of replication sites and lower yields. This means that they'll only have access to 25GB discs, which could mean fewer features and lower-quality video and audio.

If you don't think capacity is an issue—necessitating the dual-layer discs— a Disney spokesperson (not to mention Metal Gear guru Hideo Kojima) says otherwise: even 50GB isn't enough. Disney's upcoming Sleeping Beauty Platinum release is going to take up two discs: a 50GB double layer plus another 25GB one. While every release won't be a two-disc monster, the company tells us that "franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean or Narnia...also get similar kind of treatments." It also confirmed that, for the moment, Blu-ray disc replicators are "kinda limited."

The Real Enemy

Truthfully, these are all just minor issues. The biggest problem on Blu-ray's hands? DVD. It's entrenched, it's cheap, and for most people, it's good enough (especially upscaled on a 720p LCD from 8 or 10 feet away). Sony mouthpieces and execs laugh off the "threat" of video downloads, but they don't seem to laugh when you talk about the exact same content on DVD. Even while Glasgow assures us they "think [Blu-ray sales] can get up to DVD levels," he admits "there are some issues: upscaling DVDs is getting better and better." Sony continually must "convince people of the value of high definition."

In fact, everyone we talked to—in Hollywood or in hardware—emphasized the need to educate consumers about high def and convince them to make the switch. If it's so inevitable and obvious, why do they need to pour a load of money and ad time into it? Sony's major campaign for the entire year is "HDNA," all about educating consumers about HD.

The Sony brand might "hold up well during difficult economic times" but a recession will keep DVD looking pretty good to a lot of people, even ones who already bought an HDTV. Bundling players with HDTVs—which Glasgow said would happen soon—might spur adoption, but until the Wal-mart masses can easily (read: cheaply) adopt Blu-ray, it's not going to knock DVD players off shelves. That's several years out.

The Dim Light at the End of the Tunnel

Naturally, Blu-ray will only get better—the hardware will improve, the catalog will grow, the feature set will expand. Already standalone players load up much faster than craptastically slow players of yesteryear—one of Pioneer's new players, which will be announced shortly, already boasts a boot time of 14.8 seconds, nearly halving the time of the current fastest standalone player, Panasonic's BD-30, which stands at around 26 seconds. It's on those kind of things that Pioneer plans to compete on in the market, though it'll be asking a heavier price to get them.

Blu-ray will get cheaper though, slowly but surely. Competition between and among BDA members will nudge prices down to the $299 mark this year, and we'll see that mythic $199 mark within a year—with the Chinese cheap-player cavalry not far behind, ready to grind profit margins into oblivion. That's when we'll see mass adoption—when, from a consumer perspective, Blu-ray really "wins." Too bad, on the hardware side, there may not be any spoils left for the victors.