Saturday, October 08, 2005

Format Wars not in Public Interest

Go into the TV section of any major appliance store and you’ll find row after row of the latest high-definition and digital television sets. Some have flat panel screens; some don’t. They come in a vast array of sizes and styles.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a standard old-fashioned color TV set in the store. They’re still sold, but they’re relegated to a small corner of the store.

But if you want to watch a DVD on one of these new HDTV sets all you will see is a standard resolution picture. And if you want to record programs in high definition, you better get a digital video recorder from your cable or satellite provider, because regular old VCRs won’t do it. Neither will the DVD recorders.

Not to worry, though, because in the coming months manufacturers will be making and selling new DVD players and recorders that are meant to take advantage of the increased resolution and digital quality of the currently-available high-def broadcasts.

The problem is, manufacturers and content providers can’t agree on which one of the two competing formats to use.

It’s the same old tired story. Remember when video cassette recorders first came out back in the late 1970s? There were two competing formats: Beta and VHS.

For a few years, stores sold both formats. Movie studios at first released films on one or the other, but later began releasing titles on both formats. Video rental stores would typically stock two different versions of each film.

Eventually, VHS won out, not because it was superior, but because its manufacturers did a better job of promoting it to the public. Beta, though arguably a higher-quality format, went the way of the dinosaurs.

It’s been the same with other products, too. Audiophiles can currently purchase songs recorded on two competing disc formats that are both superior to standard CDs. One is called Super Audio CD, or SACD, and the other is called DVD Audio.

DVD Audio is not the same as the sound track you hear when playing a movie on DVD. It has two to four times the sampling rate of a standard CD and is typically recorded in 5.1 surround sound. SACD discs also provide similar high-definition sound. But the two formats, like VHS and Beta, are incompatible.

Now, the electronics industry has introduced Blu-ray and HD DVD. Both are high definition formats of the standard DVD, but they have incompatible technologies. They won’t play on the same machine.

Some movie and software companies have lined up behind Blu-ray, such as Twentieth Century Fox, Vivendi Universal and Walt Disney. Others have climbed aboard the HD DVD bandwagon. These include HBO, New Line Cinema, Paramount Home Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video.

Microsoft and Intel recently announced they would be supporting the HD DVD format in hopes of swaying the format battle to that side. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Their hardware partners, Dell and Hewlett-Packard are sticking with Blu-ray.

Like the old Beta and VHS format war, both DVD formats will provide consumers alternate ways of getting what they want. They both will supply high-quaility digital movies capable of being played back in full splendor on the new HDTV sets.

But just like with past format wars, this one is not in the consumer’s best interest. It not only lends confusion in a market that is confusing enough, it will force the consumer to pick one format over the other and hope their choice ultimately wins out.

When will companies ever learn that competing formats are never a good thing to introduce to the public. Set up a joint commission to iron out format differences first, then release only the winner to the public.

Whoever finally wins the latest format war, one thing is for certain. The consuming public will lose.

When both formats are released to the public next spring, consumers should send a strong signal that they do not want to participate in another format war. They should refuse to purchase either until the manufacturers agree on one format.

If consumers withhold their dollars, it won’t take long before the manufacturers and content providers see that it is in their own best interest to work it out and agree on a single format.

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