Blu-ray versus HD-DVD

Feeling Blu at CES

Famous format wars I VHS versus Betamax I 8-Track versus cassette I Sega versus Sony versus Nintendo I Blu-ray versus HD-DVD I Future format wars

History gives us the benefi t of hindsight. In every war, key moments where blood could have been spared are forever mourned by the battle-scarred survivors and that’s true for Toshiba’s HD-DVD and Sony’s Blu-ray.

Blue laser-based hi-def discs had been in the pipeline since 2002 but had fallen victim to some pretty ludicrous arguments between manufacturers. Firstly, Toshiba and others split off from the original Blu-ray steering group in an argument over whether blue lasers were too expensive… and then announced it was launching its own blue-laser disc format (HD-DVD). Then, an even more tedious debate – was Java or Microsoft’s HDi better for the discs’ interactive elements? – erupted.

Sensing this was, perhaps, a little silly, Sony and Toshiba met. Prototypes for both formats were in place, but it wasn’t too late to save the industry millions and save HD-ready customers from another game of tech roulette. In March 2005, Sony’s President elect Ryoji Chubachi said that after “listening to the voice of the consumers, having two rival formats is
disappointing and we haven’t totally given up on the possibility of integration or compromise.”

Talks took place in April in an attempt to unify the formats, but ended in a stalemate and studios began to pick sides. Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, New Line, HBO and Microsoft Xbox initially backed HD-DVD, while Disney, Lionsgate, Mitsubishi, Dell and the PlayStation 3 had Blu-ray’s back. Both companies enjoyed minor victories, but it would all come down to the grandest arena tech has to offer: the Consumer Electronics Show 2008. Both sides were primed and ready for CES to turn the tide. Then Warners defected to Blu-ray. HD-DVD’s celebration Champagne corks came out not with a victorious pop but with an embarrassed fart.

“I was with Toshiba when the HD-DVD press conference was called off,” says tech journalist Joe Minihane, who covered the event for T3. “Tosh had just taken us on a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon when the press guy turned round and said, ‘As some of you may know, today’s HD-DVD press conference has been cancelled.’ They were very sheepish about it. It didn’t help that the event bags that were dished out to the media all had Toshiba HD-DVD logos splashed across them.”

On the day Toshiba had prepared to tell of a glowing future for HD-DVD, based on the momentum it was gaining through stronger sales, its Digital Audio and Video VP was forced to, ahem, “shift the focus of her comments”.

“As you can imagine, this is a tough day for me,” Jody Salley told the press. “I fully expected to come here this morning to share with you the successes of the last year of HD-DVD, but the events of the last few days have shifted the focus of my comments. It is diffi cult to read pundits declaring HD-DVD dead… but we’ve been declared dead before.”

HD-DVD may or may not have been declared dead before, but this time there was no doubt it had run down the curtain, joined the choir invisible and become an ex-format. The game was up. Over at Sony, talk was already turning to how to progress Blu-ray now it had the market to itself.

“It was a very well kept secret,” says Sony’s Eric Kingdon, who was at the show preparing the Blu-ray stand. “Those guys at Warner Brothers didn’t tell a lot of people. Of course top management would have known about it, but to us it was a great surprise and it left a lot of people smiling because this was going to provide a clear path to the conclusion.

“I remember the Blu-ray stand was absolutely heaving with people after that and from that point on, it was obvious this was the format that the market was going to go with. There was a palpable sense of relief among consumers. About a month later, I was at another show and people were so glad it was over, they came up to me saying, ‘Now I know what to buy’.”

HD-DVD tried to counter with almost daily price cuts, but its remaining partners deserted it. Just five weeks after CES, Toshiba shut down the HD-DVD production line and the hi-def death match was over. After a brief, face-saving assertion that DVD upscaling was now the way to go, Toshiba eventually caved in and released its first Blu-ray player last year. For Sony, 20 years after being forced to embrace the VHS format that killed Betamax, it must have been an exceedingly sweet moment.