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8/19/2005
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DVD Vendors Push Competing High-Def Formats

As backers of the competing next-generation DVD formats, Blu-ray and HD-DVD, ratched up their marketing campaigns over their copy-protection formats, they're forgetting about consumers.

As backers of the competing next-generation DVD formats, Blu-ray and HD-DVD, ratchet up their marketing debate — each insisting their content-protection scheme kicks the other guy's butt — you can't fault innocent bystanders (and the press) for covering their ears and asking, "Who cares?"

The bigger problem awaiting consumers is the inevitable worst-case scenario, in which a high-definition version of, say, The Lord of the Rings, which was produced by a unit of HD-DVD backer Time Warner, cannot be viewed on a Blu-ray player. Meanwhile, purchasers of HD-DVD players — due to be launched later this year — face the real possibility of not watching Spider-Man 2, produced by Blu-ray backer Sony Pictures, in the high-definition resolution for which they paid through the nose.

Jockeying to protect both ego and financial interests, Hollywood studios and consumer and computer companies are taking sides, favoring one proposed high-definition optical disk format over the other. Regardless of their excuses and rationalizations, it's plain to see that the guilty parties are all stumbling toward a potential disaster of their own making.

In a recent interview with EE Times, Kappei Morishita, general manager of Panasonic's Hollywood liaison office, said, "Of course, a unified format is better than the two incompatible formats." That is hardly an original statement, but he and his colleagues at Panasonic, a unit of Matsushita Electric Industrial, added something more interesting. Even if the formats were to be unified, they said, it would not assure the ultimate success of next-generation high-definition optical disks. "It is a huge bet," Morishita said.

It's a gamble, a colleague agrees, because "none of us has figured out yet advanced interactivity components of next-generation DVD." Keisuke Suetsugi, managing director of the Panasonic Hollywood Lab, responsible for Blu-ray promotion, said the biggest potential pitfall for the Sony/Panasonic-led Blu-ray format is the possibility that in the end the new spec may offer just another enlarged-capacity DVD format. He insists that the new format's success greatly depends on expanded interactivity and whether its recording medium becomes an integral component of a home network.

But wait. What advanced interactivity? What's he talking about? Isn't DVD or Blu-ray (or HD-DVD) just a movie on a disk?

That's not the case, Suetsugi said. While it may not be obvious to consumers, the big triumph of the DVD format in the 1990s — in the eyes of its creators — was its success in marrying audio-visual signals with IT-based navigation technologies, the first consumer electronics standard to do so.

Remember Philips' CD-I format, the 3DO game machine and the legendary Amiga system? The history of consumer electronics is rife with failed efforts to add interactivity to consumer embedded systems without having to use a PC.

Primitive though it may be, DVD has given consumers an easy-to-use interactive experience they have all come to expect in its industry-standardized navigation system — a high-tech encounter that doesn't require them to read a user's manual written by a committee of ESL students.

Sure, DVD manufacturers sold tons of players based on reasonable pricing, the compactness of the disk, digitally mastered high-resolution content and compatibility with a computer as a data-recording format. But, above all, the basic, simple-to-navigate interactive system — and some additional materials that come with it — was the killer app that ultimately "wowed" consumers, Suetsugi said.

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