The Blu-ray verses HD-DVD battle is still a long way from being decided but video rental giant Blockbuster may have fired the critical shot last week with the announcement that they would exclusively stock Blu-ray disks for rental and sale.
If you’re living in a bunker, Blu-ray and HD-DVD disks are basically high-capacity DVDs that have enough capacity to hold high-definition movies and television content, but require players with special lasers and improved electronics to transfer that data to high-definition televisions.
Blockbuster’s decision is huge, with close to 10,000 stores in more than 30 countries. Lately the chain has been losing money, largely as a result of increased competition from online rental services and brick and mortar stores, but the technology itself may be partly to blame. VHS tapes were the standard for almost 20 years, and rarely had technical problems. DVDs have been the standard for about six years, are prone to scratches and damage, and will likely be replaced by something else before their decade is up.
The video game rental business is also fragmented, as stores try to carry all the latest PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Nintendo Gamecube and Nintendo Wii games. The pressure to get rid of late fees and have guaranteed new releases on the shelves has also taken its toll, as has the lack of really good movies that is hurting Hollywood in general.
Stocking Blu-ray is a risk, but I assume that Blockbuster has done its research on this.
For one thing, Sony’s work pushing Blu-ray over HD DVD is winning converts. The price of a Blu-ray player is now $599 at Futureshop, less than half of what it was a year ago. That’s $200 more than the cheapest HD DVD player after Toshiba’s rebate, but it’s still in the ballpark for most consumers. And while the PS3 may be the poorest selling of the next generation consoles — just 3.5 million consoles sold worldwide, compared to 11.2 million Xbox 360s and 8.2 million of the Nintendo Wii — there’s no question that the PS3 is driving the sale, and soon rental, of Blu-ray disks.
At this point, Blu-ray appears to be beating HD DVD by a 5:1 rato on the hardware side, while recently also surpassing HD DVD on the sales side.
There are still some things that Toshiba and other backers of HD DVD can do to pick up the pace. The first thing would be to drop the price of the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on, including an HDMI port and cable for the growing number of people with high definition televisions. Another would be to cut the price of players and disk media, making Blu-ray seem even more overpriced. Since HD DVD is based on proven DVD technology, and Blu-ray is a whole new technology, in many ways it could be fairly simple to achieve those lower prices.
As a consumer it’s still a difficult choice to make at whatever price. However, I doubt that we’re really seeing a format war as dire as the one waged between Betamax and VHS in the 1980s. For one thing, companies have already figured out how to make disks that are HD DVD readable on one side and Blu-ray readable on the other, which would allow people to buy movies without the fear of them becoming obsolete.
For another, a few companies have also figured out a way to combine both technologies in the same player. It’s really expensive now, requiring two separate optical lasers, but could be cheap enough in a year or two.
Lastly, there’s also a very good chance that both formats will end up getting leapfrogged by another new technology that gets rid of disks altogether. It may be streaming video to computers and devices like Apple’s iTV and Microsoft Media Center-enabled devices. It could be the use of portable hard drives or flash drives, like Samsung’s new 64 GB drives, that could allow you to quickly download any movies you want to watch from the servers at your local video store.
If you’re still on the fence whether to buy, my advice would be to wait about six months. It took less than a year for the price of players to drop by 40 to 60 per cent, and by the Christmas shopping season in November and Boxing Day — both crucial for the format wars — the price of players and disks should be lowered again. At the same time, double-sided disks with both formats should be in wide circulation. Why take a chance?
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