In the yin and yang of home entertainment, few companies or consortiums maintain market dominance forever. The “format war” between Betamax and VHS dragged out for just over a decade, with Sony’s Betamax technology ultimately falling by the wayside. Likewise, the battle between Laserdisc and VHS endured for 22 years, with Paramount publishing the last Laserdiscs in 2000. Sony and Paramount find themselves at opposite ends of yet another format war (Blu-ray Disc versus HD-DVD), but this latest conflict may essentially be over before it began. Today, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced it will abandon the HD-DVD format and exclusively publish Blu-ray movies effective June 2008. The consequence of this announcement? Sony’s finally going to get its format dominance.
In the videogame industry, the Blu-ray Disc versus HD-DVD argument was easily and often construed as a Sony versus Microsoft, PlayStation 3 versus Xbox 360 issue. The conflict between the two formats reached far deeper than that, though, with movie studios, producers and home-electronics manufacturers picking one side or the other. Warner Bros. and Paramount were two of the few exceptions, choosing to support both formats until consumers showed a preference. But now, just over 18 months after the first HD-DVD player appeared in stores, Warner Bros. has essentially crowned the winner.
When Paramount announced in it would publish its movies exclusively on HD-DVD, the news was surprisingly viewed more as an inconvenience to Blu-ray player owners than it was an indicator of either format’s strength. But today’s news that Warner Bros. would exclusively support Blu-ray has far more dire consequences, at least in terms of public perception.
And when watching and predicting consumer behavior, perception is everything.
Blu-ray as a term just sounds sexy. Its technology is built into the sexy PlayStation 3. Blu-ray was featured in shopping malls during the Disney Magical Blu-ray Tour, which by all accounts was a hit with consumers. HD-DVD? Well, it sure sounds familiar. But is it really?
One of the reasons Warner Bros. finally picked a side was the need to eliminate confusion over the competing high-definition formats. HD-DVD had a couple of strikes against it in this regard: its use of the term “DVD” and the ability to incorporate dual-format discs in a single package. Blu-ray, on the other hand, was a clear and concise term and could in no way be confused with standard DVD technology. With Blu-ray’s big marketing push and the “sex appeal” factor, HD-DVD supporters hung precariously onto their position in the format war and couldn’t avoid any missteps. Warner Bros. today provided that misstep for them.
The impact of Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray announcement has already been felt, and not just in terms of consumers’ mindset. The high-profile HD-DVD consortium press conference scheduled to take place during CES 2008 has already been cancelled. In its cancellation notice, the HD-DVD Promotion Group said “We are currently discussing the potential impact of this announcement with the other HD DVD partner companies and evaluating next steps. We believe the consumer continues to benefit from HD DVD’s commitment to quality and affordability — a bar that is critical for the mainstream success of any format.”
HD-DVD’s quality was never in question, as its movies were continually on par with Blu-ray Disc, and its picture-in-picture functionality was only recently matched with Blu-ray Profile 1.1. And affordability, while currently a feather in HD-DVD’s cap, could soon be moot, as Sony Electronics President Stan Glasgow has predicted several Blu-ray players will drop to $399 sometime this year.
With that in mind, the “potential impact” of the Warner Bros. announcement is already clear, whether the HD-DVD Promotion Group wants to admit it or not: The first domino has just been tipped. HD-DVD could soon be dead.
Warner Bros. accounts for nearly 20 percent of U.S. DVD sales, so putting its high-definition weight behind Blu-ray Disc is a major coup. In addition, the company’s decision leaves only three big-time studios — Paramount, Universal and New Line — in support of HD-DVD. Did the HD-DVD Promotion Group really cancel its CES press conference to consult its remaining members, or did it do so to get a jump start on the mothballing process? In this case, it’s probably one and the same.
Maybe consumers should be happy that the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD format war is all but over. With one format apparently on its way out, they can now focus on buying one new piece of hardware rather than two, and they can quit wondering why Blockbuster Video only carries one format (Blu-ray). And hey, if you find yourself with an expensive, shiny paper weight called “HD-DVD player” in your entertainment system…well, there’s always the antiques/collectibles section on eBay.
— Jonas Allen