Daniel Eran Dilger
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Lessons from the Death of HD-DVD

200802210106
Daniel Eran Dilger
Over the last few months, HD-DVD appeared to rapidly fall from its apparent position as promising new disc format–touted by supporters as being technically superior, significantly cheaper, and less restrictive–down to a harsh new reality of scheduled death. However, the fate of HD-DVD wasn’t nearly as unpredictable as some seemed to think. Here’s why HD-DVD’s end should not have been a surprise, what lessons can be learned from its death, and what its demise means for Microsoft.

Auf Deutsch: Lehren aus dem Tod der HD-DVD
Übersetzung: digital express

A New Format War.
Six months ago, I presented the format war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray as a skirmish on the edge of the console video game business. Through the end of 2007, both HD formats had failed to sell more than a few hundred thousand standalone units, leaving HD discs a collective failure on the order of Microsoft’s Zune music player.

While standalone HD disc players languished in the market throughout 2007, Sony advertised Blu-Ray in its PlayStation 3 game console as Microsoft pushed HD-DVD on PCs with support built into Windows Vista and sold a low priced external HD-DVD drive option for the Xbox 360. This appeared to give Microsoft and HD-DVD a strong edge in the market, as it had the monopoly power of Windows behind it.

Both companies wanted to control media playback in the emerging market for HD video, just as they battled to control audio playback a half decade prior, when Microsoft had pushed its PlaysForSure Windows Media Audio players against Sony’s ATRAC Walkman hardware; both efforts lost out to Apple’s iPod. In the new HD video market, Microsoft again wanted to push its Windows Media codecs while Sony wanted to establish its blue-violet laser technology.

Blu-ray vs HD-DVD in Next Generation Game Consoles

Blu-ray vs HD-DVD in Next Generation Game Consoles

The Format War Origins.
Since Sony had no rival video codec software to push, and Microsoft had no real hardware interests to defend, why were they battling for the next generation of video discs rather than working together on a joint standard? Initially, Microsoft did work with Sony. However, the rest of the industry working with Sony on Blu-Ray rejected portions of Microsoft’s technology, sending the company into a furious rivalry against Blu-Ray.

A follow up article on the origins of the format war presented Microsoft’s efforts to push its Windows Media and WinCE as essential, proprietary aspects of both the new HD disc formats. While Microsoft successfully wrote Windows Media (aka VC-1) into the specification of both Toshiba’s AOD and Sony’s Blu-Ray, the Blu-Ray consortium members later selected Java-based technology from Sun as its interactive menu layer rather than Microsoft’s WinCE/HDi.

Origins of the Blu-ray vs HD-DVD War

The Early Lead of HD-DVD.
Years earlier in 2003, the DVD Forum had selected Toshiba’s AOD format as the successor to DVD because the company promised it would be finished sooner than Sony’s Blu-Ray; the Forum subsequently renamed Toshiba’s format HD-DVD to associate it with DVD, while Sony continued work on Blu-Ray.

At the time, Sony’s efforts looked significantly behind. Blue-violet lasers were already expensive, but Blu-Ray also required retooled manufacturing lines. HD-DVD promised to reach the market faster and cheaper due to its similarities to DVD player assembly as well as support from Microsoft on the PC desktop and in its first-to-market Xbox 360 game console. Microsoft had also sold Disney CEO Michael Eisner on HDi and Windows Media DRM.

It appeared that Microsoft had time, technology, and studio deals all on its side, while Sony’s Blu-Ray was falling behind, more complicated, and lacked support from studios. Those same problems had spelled death for Sony’s UMD, a proprietary mini-DVD disc designed for use on the PlayStation Portable. Blu-Ray was also frequently compared to Betamax, which had fallen to JVC’s VHS format in the 80s after a prolonged format war that confused and irritated consumers.

Betamax

Movie Studios vs. Consumers in Home Theater
Format Wars in Home Theater

A Reversal of Fortune.
A series of industry shifts resulted in a weakening of the initially strong presence of HD-DVD long before consumers could even select between them. In 2004, Sony bought MGM. The next year, Eisner left Disney and the company’s ties to Microsoft began to wane. That shifted major studio support towards Blu-Ray.

By the end of 2004, it was also obvious that Toshiba wasn’t going to deliver HD-DVD a year ahead of Blu-Ray as promised. The rest of the industry also began to view Blu-Ray as a more credible format despite the DVD Forum’s official blessing for HD-DVD. Sony had developed hardware partnerships with every major hardware manufacturer, while Toshiba was the only significant manufacturer of HD-DVD players.

Through 2005, Toshiba continued to struggle with HD-DVD. The components required to to render HD video and display Microsoft’s HDi were similar to a low-end PC, and cost roughly $675 just for the bill of materials. That left Toshiba with a major hardware loss when trying to sell the players at a $500 consumer price target. The company was ready to drop HD-DVD that year and join the Blu-Ray consortium, but Microsoft pushed it to continue.

The first HD-DVD players weren’t ready until early 2006. Blu-Ray players debuted just weeks later, priced closer to $1000. By the end of that year, Microsoft began selling an external $200 HD-DVD player for the Xbox 360, just as Sony introduced its PlayStation 3 with an integrated Blu-Ray player.

Five Ways Apple Will Change TV: 5 Eisner: the Bronfman of Movies
Why Low Def is the New HD

HD War Games.
By the end of 2006, Microsoft had shipped ten million Xbox 360s to stores, while Sony had only sold a few hundred thousand units of the new PS3. However, Microsoft only sold a limited number of its optional HD-DVD drives to Xbox users, while every PS3 shipped with Blu-Ray capabilities.

Compared to standalone HD disc players, Sony’s PS3 not only offered the cheapest Blu-Ray system, but also did a variety of other things, including media downloads and of course games. Throughout 2007, Sony shipped nearly as many PS3 units (6.5 million) as Microsoft sold Xbox 360s (7.3 million). Again, every PS3 played Blu-Ray, while only a small number of Microsoft’s console buyers opted for the HD-DVD option.

Many PS3 buyers were buying them, not as game machines, but on the recommendation of sales people because it was the most economical Blu-Ray player. That surge of Blu-Ray players began creating a market for HD discs that greatly outnumbered the few hundred thousand HD disc players sold outside of the PS3.

Video Game Consoles 2007: Wii, PS3 and the Death of Microsoft’s Xbox 360

Video Game Consoles 2007: Wii, PS3 and the Death of Microsoft’s Xbox 360

The War on Microsoft.
While the PS3 pushed the Blu-Ray format over the goal line, the entire industry outside of Microsoft, Intel, and Toshiba was lined up behind Blu-Ray. There simply wasn’t any realistic chance that HD-DVD would prevail. This wasn’t a simple physical format war like the old VHS and Betamax rivalry; also at stake were the future of video codecs and embedded interactivity development. This was a battle for software and open markets that went far beyond HD disc movie playback.

Companies like Apple and Sun, neither of which had expressed any interest in building or selling HD discs, were unitedly opposed to HD-DVD because it meant Microsoft would expand its proprietary control over video codecs and the embedded software runtime used for interactivity. The industry in general has actively been pushing to rid itself of dependance upon Microsoft controlled standards.

Ten years ago in 1998, Apple, Sun, IBM, Netscape, Oracle, and Silicon Graphics all collectively backed QuickTime against Microsoft’s ASF as the new container for MPEG-4. ISO members subsequently selected QuickTime over ASF and set in motion the development of open standards for mobile, disc, and high definition media distribution using a standard set of codecs collectively maintained by the entire industry rather than beholden to a specific company.

Since then, Microsoft tried hard to push ASF, derail MPEG-4, and even created its own bastard version of MPEG-4 codecs under the name Windows Media 9. It also worked hard to establish its proprietary audio codecs in the field of portable media players. When those efforts all failed, Microsoft ran WM9 though a sham standards process that rebranded it as VC-1, and set up a satellite group of “partners” to advocate it, all of which were owned or directly controlled by Microsoft.

None of these efforts hid the reality that Microsoft wanted to simply duplicate in media what it had done to the PC desktop: copy existing technology, add proprietary hooks, and then sit back and tax the industry with software fees without adding any value. After having been burned repeatedly, the rest of the industry is now ready to shoot down every effort Microsoft makes to enslave innovation and progress.

Microsoft's Plot to Kill QuickTime

Microsoft’s Plot to Kill QuickTime

Misinformation Wars.
Added to the strong showing of studios and manufacturers already supporting Blu-Ray since 2005, the impact of Sony’s integration of Blu-Ray on the PS3 left little room for the HD-DVD camp to maneuver. Microsoft’s efforts to support HD-DVD in Windows Vista and on the Xbox 360 had a limited effect because Vista turned out a commercial failure, and 360 sales were in a precipitous free fall, dropping 33% year over year in 2007. Sony had attached Blu-Ray to its PS3 rocket at launch while Microsoft tied two sandbags to HD-DVD: Vista and the Xbox 360.

Apple, Nintendo, and Sony were all working to push OpenGL against Microsoft’s proprietary DirectX. The video industry was pushing behind the ISO’s MPEG-4 H.264 and AAC, aided by the popularity of Apple’s iTunes, rather than the proprietary WMA and WMV/VC-1 codecs Microsoft was working to advance. The embedded industry favored Java over Microsoft’s latest proprietary efforts to own interactivity. HD-DVD died because the industry collectively worked to kill it as a proprietary monster that would enslave users, studios, and developers to Microsoft’s software. It wasn’t a simple disc format struggle.

The public wasn’t aware of what was going on behind the scenes because Microsoft worked diligently to spin a misinformation campaign that suggested that HD-DVD would be cheaper, more open, and deliver more content. Backers were fed talking points that insisted that HD-DVD discs were cheaper to create, that the Chinese would pump out ultra cheap players to support Microsoft, and that HD-DVD’s DRM was somehow easier to get around than Blu-Ray. This was all false.

When charged with the reality that Microsoft is nothing more than a marketing organization pushing inferior technology tied to proprietary standards that will later be leveraged to extort higher prices, the company responds with a smoke screen that declares that its products will be first-to-market and supported by lowballing Chinese manufacturers. At the same time however, Microsoft has only ever delivered late, inferior products that have a higher total cost of ownership. Its supporters have worked hard to bury this reality even as Microsoft continues to raise prices on poor products that have limited competition, such as Windows Vista.

Why Microsoft’s Copy-Killing Has Reached a Dead End

Reality Distortion.
Despite the industry’s widespread backing of Blu-Ray, Microsoft similarly worked hard to create the illusion that HD-DVD was a viable product. This was critical because HD-DVD was Microsoft’s last effort to force the adoption of VC-1 and HDi. It had already failed to successfully use WinCE in any other embedded market, from smartphones to music players to handheld computers, and had similarly failed to establish Windows Media as a download format against the ISO’s AAC and H.264, widely popularized by Apple’s iTunes.

In a final act of desperation, the HD-DVD camp signed up Paramount and DreamWorks as new exclusive movie studios for HD-DVD. This pitted roughly half of the studios behind each of the two rival formats, with Warner Bros. being unique in offering titles in both formats. Microsoft’s efforts to prolong the format war had nothing to do with players or media, and everything to do with forwarding its proprietary software.

However, consumers were confused by the format uncertainty, which helped to slow sales across the board. Irritated by Microsoft’s refusal to cooperate, Warner Bros. announced a pullout of HD-DVD support right before CES, yanking the plug on Microsoft’s HD-DVD marketing push planned for the show. That signaled an enthusiastic redrawing of the watershed of support behind Blu-Ray, from retailers like WalMart to movie rental groups including Blockbuster and Netflix, and ultimately to Toshiba as HD-DVD’s hardware producer.

What the Death of HD-DVD Means.
HD-DVD is dead, and with it dies Microsoft’s aspirations to inject its proprietary software in media development. This is also a big strike against VC-1; despite being written into the Blu-Ray standard along with the ISO’s H.264, most Blu-Ray developers are moving toward H.264, which not only allows them to master HD discs, but also deliver mobile and downloadable versions using the same codec for playback on devices such as the PSP and iPod.

The death of HD-DVD also presents further evidence that Microsoft is increasingly incapable of pushing its own proprietary standards using its Windows monopoly. Building support for HD-DVD into Windows Vista did almost nothing to shore up support for the format, and tying it to the Xbox 360 similarly did little to push things toward the outcome Microsoft wanted.

In the 90s, Microsoft maintained an invincible aura praised by loyal pundits; it defeated small companies, bought up rivals and destroyed them, slit its partners’ throats, and put startups out of business. It only ever gave the appearance of maintaining strong relationships with its partner companies. However, in the last ten years, that strong facade has been destroyed by a series of very public failures:

WinCE helped to destroy Palm, but did nothing to advance the state of the art and has since fallen into a distant and increasingly irrelevant third place in smartphones. It has become similarly irrelevant in the small handheld computer market for which it was created, and has failed as an embedded system. Microsoft moved its UMPC plans to use its desktop Windows, dropped any hope of using WinCE as the basis for game consoles, and most recently bought up Java-based Danger to replace WinCE as its mobile strategy. If Microsoft is fully abandoning WinCE, why should partners stick around?

Windows XP has floated along as the default choice for PC consumers, but when Microsoft tried to raise the price and tack on fluff features with the Vista rebranding, buyers demanded to upgrade to the previous version. Microsoft is still shipping Vista to manufacturers, but corporations and end users are frequently reverting to Windows XP, killing Microsoft’s ability to leverage its market position to push new proprietary standards and raise prices for features that were once included for free, such as standard networking.

The Xbox 360 had a strong showing in its first year, but was still unable to match the sales of Sony’s PS2. In its second year, it not only fell behind sales of the original Xbox [correction: 360 unit shipments were up 30% over the original Xbox after the first year], but 360 shipments also fell 33% year over year as buyers shifted their attention to the newer Nintendo Wii and PS3. The Wii outsold the 360 in 2007 and the PS3 came within a stones throw of matching its sales [update: the PS3 has also eclipsed 360 unit sales as it enters its second year]. Going forward, there is no reason for thinking 360 sales will dramatically turn around, as sales growth fell this year despite the arrival of major hit new games.

In contrast, after a slow initial start in its first year, Sony’s PS2 grew dramatically year over year back to back in 2001 and 2002, and maintained annual sales well above the Xbox 360′s 2006 peak for over six years, selling an average of 16.8 million per year over its seven year lifespan. Sony has similar long term plans for the PS3, while Microsoft has been unable to sell a game console with a lifespan over four years. The 360 is having a late life crisis just as the PS3 is beginning to sell in adolescent volume.

Microsoft’s monopoly power is dissolving, and its ability to create anti-competitive partnerships and exclusive alliances is also falling apart. Its hardware partners have been led on wild goose chases with WinCE, desktop Windows, PlaysForSure, and now HD-DVD, leaving alliances with Microsoft looking more like charity exercises than business decisions.

The Spectacular Failure of WinCE and Windows Mobile
Windows 95 and Vista: Why 2007 Won’t Be Like 1995
Myth 7: The Xbox Success Myth

Misinformation Is and Misinformation Does.
With the mask pulled off the bluffing, blustering HD-DVD, it becomes clearer that the talking points generated by Microsoft’s supporters all have the same source. As new promises are made about the imminent arrival of cheap new hardware from Chinese dumping, new partnerships just around the corner, and the power of Microsoft’s monopoly to make the improbable happen, it will now be increasingly difficult for the public to swallow them.

Those assurances applied not only to the failure of HD-DVD but also the failure of the Zune, which was similarly supposed to take on the world with Toshiba and turn into a Chinese mass production established in place by the influence of Windows and the Xbox. Instead, MTV’s Urge defected from its Zune store partnership with Microsoft to join Real’s rival Rhapsody music store, and Microsoft never even built any significant integration between the Zune and Xbox.

The Xbox itself was also supposed to rapidly turn around in price, but it soon be came clear that the Xbox 360 was actually more expensive to buy compared to the PS3 for users who get a hard drive, HD disc player, wireless networking, and other features left off Xbox models. In order to hide the fact that Xbox sales are dramatically tapering off, pundits only ever counted the 360, PS3, and Wii in cumulative numbers. No other market uses installed base to compare sales. Microsoft certainly doesn’t talk about installed base when comparing the Zune to the iPod.

If the Zune had sold a respectable number of units, it would be praised for its achievement rather than compared to the total number of iPods sold in previous years. Instead, Microsoft gerrymandered a market for “30GB hard drive based music players” in order to briefly claim a slice approaching 10% of weekly sales numbers.

Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing
Rise of the iTunes Killers Myth

The End of A Great Illusion.
The reality is that Microsoft is forced to falsify reports and color numbers because reality doesn’t support the illusion of Microsoft’s unquestionable market power. The company is failing in consumer electronics, and every year that passes makes its losses greater and its accomplishments less impressive.

With shrinking sales, the 360 isn’t going to hold off expansion of the PS3. With the death of HD-DVD, Microsoft isn’t going to push into media sales and production. With fire sales of the Zune, Apple is not going to lose its iPod business to the same company that already failed to take it on with its PlaysForSure partners.

The death of HD-DVD says more about Microsoft and its future than the general media seems to recognize. It’s not a format war, its a culture war between industry players working to advance the state of the art collectively in partnerships, and one company working to own everything while contributing very little. It’s not hard to see why Microsoft’s bruised and abused former partners are working to align themselves with open solutions rather than buy into more pain with technology tied to Microsoft. That’s very bad news for a company that exists solely as a licensee of third rate product ideas.

The death of HD-DVD is another lethal wound for Microsoft’s dying empire.

What do you think? I really like to hear from readers. Comment in the Forum or email me with your ideas.

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  • warlock7

    @beanie
    Was HD-DVD a failure with 1.3 million units? Yep.

    But those numbers don’t sound right considering what Wal-Mart says. Yeah, and I bet Wal-Mart is where MOST people go to buy their electronics online. Wouldn’t they be the largest sellers of sub-$100 HD-DVD players too? Hmmm…

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  • hodari

    On the subject of WINCE – I agree that the initial phase was to stamp out PALM. However, PALM was a restricted OS on its propriety hardware and it made it very difficult to move it over to other industrial hand helds. Ditto for Apple Newton!.

    Symbol which controls the majority of the market for Industrial Hand held was mainly DOS based and as such WINCE did offer an alleyway to move to a GUI based OS platform. Although it might have been an indirect way of controlling the market, but it did afford us manufacturers a single platform for development and a single point of contact for driver support etc.

    The sad part is that as a manufacturer of Industrial hand helds, we have very limited choice. What embedded controller OS do we use?. LINUX? that is an impossibility because the provider of the modules such as bar code scanner (SYMBOL, OPTICON), GPRS/GSM (SIEMENS) have nothing to show on LINUX nor do they care. Sharp had attempted this effort but failed miserably.

    That leaves the field wide open for Microsoft to control the embedded market. They do provide us the entire OS Code and all drivers (unlike the desktop where everything is closed) which does make our life easier.

    However, having said that, they refuse to give us the license for Windows Mobile, unless we sign up upfront with a commitment of 100,000 licenses which is completely insane!. The reason being simple – It was Compaq than – HP now who pushed the smart windows mobile. So they are inclined to exclude other partners.

    Googles Android is another attempt at this market but I believe Google has other ulterior motives and they are not really looking at embedded market space.

    Once companies grow up such as Apple, Google, Microsoft , IBM etc they tend to take up the shape of semi-Gods!. This particular attempt on HD-Blue-RAY format to remove a single company from controlling the standards has set an example that it is the only way forward which would be a proper symbiotic eco system in which the manufacturer as well as the consumer benefits.

    So today, our choice is limited to Microsoft WINCE only!.

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  • benlewis

    @WholesaleMagic: Halo on the Xbox is rubbing salt in an old wound that won’t ever heal: The purchase of Bungie by M$ shortly before Halo (1) was set to come out for the Mac! Halo turned out to be the original XBox’s “killer app” and each subsequent release has been exclusive to that platform. Bungie was behind the Marathon trilogy, and Marathon (1) was a Mac exclusive that blew up any other FPS on ANY other system at the time (IMO). I hope Daniel writes about the strange history of gaming on the Mac (as only he can) someday.

  • surfish

    Stop Eric Savitz!

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  • Azz156

    bah lame apple fanbois look into hd dvd & how evil microsoft is.

    i found a number of glaring mistakes in this artical,

    1. vista has been a huge sucess dispite bitching & moaning from the “cool techs” (as of now over 200 million copys have been sold worldwide)

    2. zune sales have been good as far as i’ve seen (btw for a personal note i cant wait till there here in australia, ipods have a bad record of high failure rates, i;ve had 25 returned since xmas with ipods batterys failing)

    3. blu ray will proberly never be anything more then a nitch market since it risks being leap froged by downloadable content (would have been the same with hd dvd too if it won) & with the worlds economy as it is leaves little room for high priced entertainment.

    one thing i found which looked interesting, hd dvd seems to be making a small comeback since its death, seems that ppl are buying it since most hd dvd players can be found for below 100 bucks & movies as low as 5 bucks.
    http://www.engadgethd.com/2008/09/30/hd-dvd-sales-apparently-still-going-strong/

    [Yes you're right, Vista, Zune, and HD-DVD are all going strong and will no doubt return with a vengeance any moment now. Keep the faith - Dan]

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  • Willi

    I am really shocked about the misinformation you presented in this article. This article is extremely biased, subjective and full of flaws. I guess it’s true, the greatest lies are those that are combining fiction with facts in order to gain credibility.

    “The embedded industry favored Java over Microsoft’s latest proprietary efforts to own interactivity. HD-DVD died because the industry collectively worked to kill it as a proprietary monster that would enslave users, studios, and developers to Microsoft’s software. It wasn’t a simple disc format struggle.”

    That is most likely the most ridiculous thing I have read in a long time. Let’s review the differences of those two formats for a moment: Both featured the same video and audio codecs, both featured AACS. The basic differences were the scripting languages used for interactivity and the BD’s inclusion of BD+.

    Now, HD DVD used Microsoft’s HD+, a feature you seem to associate with the devil. In fact, HD+ was a simple scripting language based on XML and ECMAScript (yes, that’s Javascript). Being standardized, it was obviously openly documented and could not be altered for proprietary extensions, a thought that naturally arises when talking about Microsoft. HD+ was powerful, fast, easy to adapt and light on resources.

    Blu-ray on the other side uses Java. Java is a full-blown programming language and thus more complicated to implement and more complex. Java is not at all known for its speed, more so for the lack of it. Java supporters often claim that to be untrue, but many Blu-ray Discs like T2 have proven so by introducing loading times of up to several minutes. The only advantages of Java are the well-known syntax and its open-source nature. But since HD+ is standardized as well, where is the benefit?

    The second main difference is BD+. BD+ is a VM that runs on your BD player (we should read that again: a virtual machine that runs on your BD player – a virtual machine!) and makes sure that you don’t manipulate the data stream. To hardware manufacturers, it means a much more complex and complicated implementation of the BD standard. To end-users, it offered incompatibilities at the beginning and introduces even longer loading times.

    Summing up, I really don’t see the enslavement of users or vendors here. Studios and developers were free to use MPEG2 or AVC over VC-1 anyway, so they really had nothing to do with it anyway. Your argument of enslavement or harmful proprietaryness seems to be based purely on the fact that HD+ was invented by Microsoft.

    You also criticize the launch of the HD DVD. It’s true, at the beginning the hardware was so expensive that Toshiba had to subsidize it to reach the proposed price of 500$. It’s also true that this first HD DVD player used PC components. Interestingly though, you fail to mention that the first Blu-ray player, the PS3, was actually exactly the same, a subsidized PC. HD DVD players with standard consumer electronics came up shortly after, while Blu-ray players remained at a price range way above 1000$ for quite some time AND were, in fact, incomplete. While Toshiba made compromises regarding its first HD DVD player hardware in order to launch in time, Sony and the BDA, struggling with the same time problem, decided to compromise on the BD’s feature set instead. The Blu-ray Disc launched with an incomplete BD profile 1.0 which was only finalized in version 1.1 a whole year later. Of course, all BD players to this time except the PS3 became obsolete, since they couldn’t be upgraded. The same occurred again when introducing the optional BD profile 2.0 (BD live) some time later. I don’t call this consumer-friendly…

    Today the BD features the same advanced interactivity the HD DVD had and low prices, so home theater enthusiasts have no reason to bemoan the past or be upset about the outcome of the HD format war. I believe, though, that the format war was a good thing for consumers because it forced the BDA to improve their BD and it made the prices fall much quicker than usual. The DVD took much longer to achieve a reasonable install base and lower prices.

    You also comment on the video game console war. It’s true that the PS3 was a big factor for the success of the Blu-ray Disc, but that could hardly be said the other way around. In fact, Sony took a big, I mean a really BIG risk by implementing Blu-ray into the PS3. It not only made the console much more expensive, which concluded in the most expensive mainstream console ever and, oh wonder, a much lower popularity then with the PS2 half a decade earlier. It also delayed the launch of the system by half a year. The PS3 was originally planned to be released in spring 2006 in Japan, but due to problems with the blue laser diode it had to be postponed until fall 2006. By the way, that is also the reason why the PS3 is technically not superior to the Xbox 360: although released a year later, its hardware is basically from the same time. The Blu-ray Disc is also the reason why the HDD is mandatory on the PS3 in difference to the optional HDD on the Xbox 360: due to the immaturity of the technology back in 2006, the BD drive only has 2x speed. That translates into 9MB/s, merely 55% of the Xbox 360′s DVD drive speed. Today, every modern PS3 game has to be installed on the HDD. The install times vary between few seconds and up to an hour, since many games are shoveling several Gigabytes of data onto the HDD. On Xbox 360, you simply put the DVD in the console and you are good to go. Sure, the Xbox 360′s DVD drive is much louder, but you can install your games on HDD at any time as well. The difference is that it’s optional. The Xbox 360 is alive and healthy, by the way. It is still the lead development system for most multi-platform developers and still leads in hardware sales over the PS3. The Wii blows both of them, but that console is a completely different story anyway.

    So, the BD-drive delayed the launch of the PS3 significantly, it increased the price of the PS3 significantly, it increases loading times significantly and mandates an HDD for caching. And, as mentioned earlier, it was a big risk. The success of the BD was absolutely not predictable, not at its mediocre launch (expensive hardware and launch titles with inferior image quality), and certainly not the years before that when the PS3 was designed. If the BD had failed, chances are the PS3 had failed, too. And that would mean the end for Sony. So, Sony played poker, on the backs of its customers.

    I am sorry that I wrote so much (hope someone will even read it) and I apologize for any grammar mistakes in advance, I’m from Germany. I really like your blog, but the unbelievable hate you have against Microsoft that often clouds your objectivity is at times really enraging.

  • http://InsideAperture.com kgelner

    @Will:

    Javascript (although nothing to do with Java) has the same performance penalties as Java does – in fact only recently have we seen what are considered fast Javascript implementations, with Chrome and more recent versions of Safari and Firefox using highly upgraded engines. None of that existed during the lifespan of HD-DVD. What did exist were many highly optimized Java engines, including hardware built specifically to execute Java – and the Java used in BD development is only a subset. Java made far more sense from a performance perspective at the time for use in hardware, exactly the opposite of what you are saying.

    Furthermore, you deride Java because it is a “full blown programming language”. Well – so is Javascript. Google is using it for applications today, and it’s still the same Javascript it was back then.

    You also claim HD+ was not proprietary because it is built atop Javascript and XML. But just as Mac OS X is proprietary even though built atop open source components, HD+ was very much proprietary in the language used was owned by Microsoft – XML is just a way to encode a particular language you want to use and HD+ is one such language. Anyone making an HD-DVD player would have *had* to pay royalties to Microsoft for the use of HD+.

    Lastly, looking back in hindsight yes Sony took a huge risk – but it paid off, as is fitting for the gamble they took. Some note that the PS3 is still not selling as well as the 360, but how much was winning the entire HD format war worth? Probably it was well worth the somewhat slow sales of the PS3, even today. Would Sony really be better off if the sales positions of the PS3 and 360 were reversed, but they had lost the HD format war? No.

    In contrast, Microsoft especially never really took a firm step forward with HD-DVD and most of the partners were generally not as committed as Sony and some of the studios.

    You were also incorrect that Blu-Ray player prices “stayed above $1k for some time”, they dropped to $500-$600 very quickly after the PS3 launch (because after all they had to compete against the PS3, and they were not built by a single company the way HD-DVD players were).

  • Willi

    “Java made far more sense from a performance perspective at the time for use in hardware, exactly the opposite of what you are saying.”

    And yet Java-enabled BDs load much slower than HD+ titles.

    “Furthermore, you deride Java because it is a “full blown programming language”. Well – so is Javascript. Google is using it for applications today, and it’s still the same Javascript it was back then.”

    Actually, Javascript is a highly stripped down version of C++, in a way you could call it a subset as well. There are no real classes or other more advanced OOP features. Google is only able to build applications with it because it has created many libraries to overcome the shortcomings of Javascript and make it a more solid language. But without all these extensions, Javascript is very small feature-wise. More than enough for interactive menus, though.

    “You also claim HD+ was not proprietary because it is built atop Javascript and XML. But just as Mac OS X is proprietary even though built atop open source components, HD+ was very much proprietary in the language used was owned by Microsoft – XML is just a way to encode a particular language you want to use and HD+ is one such language. Anyone making an HD-DVD player would have *had* to pay royalties to Microsoft for the use of HD+.”

    I meant proprietary in a WMA-way, in that it’s not publicly documented and in the will of a single company. HD+ may not be licensing-free, but it’s open and it’s standardized. Talking about licensing fees, the Blu-ray Disc falls short anyway. They only recently lowered their licensing fees, before that they were much higher than those of the HD DVD. Remember, both groups have/had patent pools for all the companies that contributed proprietary technology. Even the video codecs are all patented and require fees. In the end only the sum of all fees is important, and the HD DVD succeeded over the BD in this regard.

    “Lastly, looking back in hindsight yes Sony took a huge risk – but it paid off, as is fitting for the gamble they took. Some note that the PS3 is still not selling as well as the 360, but how much was winning the entire HD format war worth? Probably it was well worth the somewhat slow sales of the PS3, even today. Would Sony really be better off if the sales positions of the PS3 and 360 were reversed, but they had lost the HD format war? No.”

    The HD DVD died because Warner ceased its support for the format. Now I can only speculate why they did that. The sales number ratio of the two formats was steady at about 60:40 in favor of BD. Maybe Warner just didn’t want to invest in both formats anymore or maybe they had an argument with the DVD forum. The PS3 has been a great contributor to the coverage of 60% of the HD software sales, but it wasn’t necessarily the reason why the BD won. Again, the trigger was Warner, not the consumers.

    It certainly wouldn’t have been better for Sony to lose the HD war and be slightly ahead of Microsoft in the console war. But by betting everything on the BD, Sony risked its Playstation business. And the Playstation brand is by far the most lucrative part of Sony’s business.

    My point is this: Sony had guts. But mostly luck. The article above reads as if it was an easy task for the BD to win, but it was not. Sony was damn close to losing everything. I was one of the early adopters, I read the news every day.

    “In contrast, Microsoft especially never really took a firm step forward with HD-DVD and most of the partners were generally not as committed as Sony and some of the studios.”

    That’s true, and that’s especially why I think this article is just flawed. Microsoft took sides in the HD format war, but it was not _its_ war. Its VC-1 is still being used in the BD, it only lost HD+ (I’m not sure if it is used in the Xbox Video Marketplace nowadays). If it had really cared, it had built HD DVD right into the Xbox 360 Elite and it would have most likely made the Windows Media Center HD-DVD-enabled. It did neither, because it didn’t really care that much.

    By the way, in the early days Bill Gates backed the HD DVD saying that the Blu-ray Disc would be incompatible to PCs due to its hefty BD+ VM. And that wasn’t so far from truth, BD+ was a challenge for software companies trying to make BD software players as well as to customers, who had to update their software often. In that regard, HD DVD was definitely more PC-friendly. In the meantime, both have been cracked open, though. ;)

    “You were also incorrect that Blu-Ray player prices “stayed above $1k for some time”, they dropped to $500-$600 very quickly after the PS3 launch (because after all they had to compete against the PS3, and they were not built by a single company the way HD-DVD players were).”

    The first BD players were released mid-2006 and cost about 1500$ (Samsung something-1000). After the release of the PS3, this very Samsung was sold off for 1000$ and later got down to about 600$. This crap wasn’t even worth that, though, since it had bad image quality (everyone else than Samsung was to blame for that, of course) and due to its profile 1.0 was obsolete hardware anyway. Many other players stayed at around 1000$, though. This was absurd especially because the PS3 was cheaper AND kept being the best BD player until around early 2008. HD DVD players may have been only available from Toshiba, but on the BD front, the PS3 was the only player that was any good, so that wasn’t really any better.

  • http://InsideAperture.com kgelner

    “And yet Java-enabled BDs load much slower than HD+ titles.”

    Because they were not really exercising Javascript, just loading up the XML and processing. That has nothing to say about the language used for more complex tasks.

    “Actually, Javascript is a highly stripped down version of C++”

    I’ve been programming in a myriad of languages for well over two decades now. Javascript has Zero to do with C++, in fact you are the first person I’ve heard make that mistake, usually they think it derives from Java. The object model is utterly different than C++ or Java and Javascript is far more a functional language than any C or Java variant. There’s a reason for that – Javascript is really based on Scheme (and Self), with a Java-like syntax overlaid at the last moment (you’d have to listen to the podcast linked to in order to know the full story, but the Wiki article is close enough):

    http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail4090.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JavaScript

    The HD DVD died because Warner ceased its support for the format. Now I can only speculate why they did that.

    It’s because it was stupid to continue (actually that was true long before but there were contractual reasons they were stuck supporting HD-DVD for as long as they did). It didn’t matter what sales WERE, it was all about what sales would BECOME. With a single hardware maker, and no Disney or Fox the format was doomed to niche status if they had continued. Warner wanted to be part of a larger pie rather than king of a small tidal pool.

    “By the way, in the early days Bill Gates backed the HD DVD saying that the Blu-ray Disc would be incompatible to PCs due to its hefty BD+ VM.”

    Which obviously was a Marking Lie since they support the format just fine today, even on older hardware.

    “Its VC-1 is still being used in the BD”

    While supported, thankfully almost no video is encoded using this any longer. I disliked the artifacts it produced.

    “If it had really cared, it had built HD DVD right into the Xbox 360 Elite and it would have most likely made the Windows Media Center HD-DVD-enabled. It did neither, because it didn’t really care that much.”

    Now that I totally agree with, that may have won the war – just like Sony’s move won the war for them. It would have meant there was at least a fight. But without that move, without that level of commitment there was never a fight, just a delaying action until the format died.

    “on the BD front, the PS3 was the only player that was any good, so that wasn’t really any better.”

    It was because there was still competition, which improved the PS3 features and playback too. You said that Blu-Ray was better for having some competition, but competition is healthier when it occurs within a single agreed-upon standard. The competition between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD just confused the market and almost killed both formats, and in the end lent no benefit to Blu-Ray it would not have had anyway.

    I’ll let you have the last comment since arguing about the past is pointless and the reality is there for anyone who cares to look, I just felt compelled to note the technical inaccuracies of your post regarding Java and Javascript.

  • Willi

    “Because they were not really exercising Javascript, just loading up the XML and processing. That has nothing to say about the language used for more complex tasks.”

    I have the HD DVD of Terminator 2, I’d say its interactivity was pretty complex. The loading times remained rather short.

    “I’ve been programming in a myriad of languages for well over two decades now. Javascript has Zero to do with C++, in fact you are the first person I’ve heard make that mistake, usually they think it derives from Java. The object model is utterly different than C++ or Java and Javascript is far more a functional language than any C or Java variant. There’s a reason for that – Javascript is really based on Scheme (and Self), with a Java-like syntax overlaid at the last moment”

    Well, I learned that in my studies (I am making the Bachelor in applied computer science with emphasis on media). Wikipedia says it has the syntax of C-type languages, too. Obviously it differs in that C++ is more object-oriented, but I believe I said so myself. Maybe my formulation was bad or the history of Javascript is different, but the syntax is clearly based on C. Wikipedia also calls it a slim programming language.

    “Which obviously was a Marking Lie since they support the format just fine today, even on older hardware.”

    No, the BD+ VM takes a fair amount of hardware resources and BD playback is only smooth on very fast systems or an systems with modern GPUs decoding it. That’s not very different from HD DVD, though.

    “While supported, thankfully almost no video is encoded using this any longer. I disliked the artifacts it produced.”

    I only have a 40″ TV, but I couldn’t really see any differences between AVC, VC1 and MPEG2 at high bitrates. Reviews for example on highdefdigest.com usually concluded the same, so I don’t think it was just me. No artifacts.

    “You said that Blu-Ray was better for having some competition, but competition is healthier when it occurs within a single agreed-upon standard. The competition between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD just confused the market and almost killed both formats, and in the end lent no benefit to Blu-Ray it would not have had anyway.”

    I’m not sure if the BDA would have invented profile 1.1 or profile 2.0 if it weren’t for the feature war against the HD DVD. That’s also what I originally said. Of course, that’s speculation, but seeing the history of the BDA, that’s not the most unbelievable thing to assume. BTW I forgot another major advantage of the HD DVD over the BD, and that is region coding. HD DVD had none. That was pure awesomeness.

    “I’ll let you have the last comment since arguing about the past is pointless and the reality is there for anyone who cares to look, I just felt compelled to note the technical inaccuracies of your post regarding Java and Javascript.”

    You are right about the past, I just don’t like seeing someone beating a dead horse for anti-MS propaganda. I don’t think the article depicts the reality correctly (I guess that’s what you mean by “the reality is there for anyone who cares to look”?). Thanks for the clarification on Java and Javascript and for the links, though.

    BTW I’m using BD myself and am happily awaiting the 3D extension planned for 2010!