You might have missed it amid all the news of the glorious Bush economy crashing down around us, but for the past couple of years, a high-definition format war has been brewing, one that would determine the industry standard and make the backers of the winning format a whole lot of money. Well, Blu-Ray "won" out over HD DVD, but its maker, Sony, didn't do so by having the better product or the better price or even the better promotional campaign. It did so by using strong-arm tactics and by tossing around what amounted to nine-figure bribes.
Let's get one thing clear right off the bat: This was NOT the son of Betamax vs. VHS. When that battle was fought a quarter-century ago, it gave the consumers a clear choice. Betamax offered a better picture, but VHS was cheaper. Period. VHS won in the marketplace because the majority of consumers believed that its picture was good enough, and the lower cost won the day.
The picture quality between HD DVD and Blu-Ray is absolutely indistinguishable. The only difference is that Blu-Ray players cost hundreds of dollars more. One would think that having the same picture quality and costing much less would make it a slam-dunk for HD DVD, but not so fast. Sony wisely made its latest version of the PlayStation 3 video-game console Blu-Ray-compatible, meaning that hard-core gamers wouldn't have to fork out big money for a player. However, the rest of us who are older than the age of 12 would have to make a choice.
At the risk of being put on a short list for John McCain's running mate, I must state that I sincerely believe that in a relatively free and unfettered marketplace, the consumer will make the right choice. That's why we drive Hondas these days instead of Buicks. And that's also why, despite the self-righteous screamers, there are still lines at McDonald's.
Actually, I couldn't be John McCain's running mate, because the 12th Amendment to the Constitution probably forbids the president and vice president being from the same state. The wording is overly confusing, even for the Constitution, stating, "The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for president and vice-president, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves ..."
Hey, could those fools write, or what?!
I learned about this back when Richard Nixon, in the middle of his first term, changed his official residence to California, ostensibly to keep then-Gov. Ronald Reagan from forcing his way onto the ticket.
Anyway, back to Sony. First, they told consumers that it was a must-have item, like quadraphonic sound or something. Call me silly, but I think regular DVDs work pretty OK. I've never been one of those, "Hey, let's get that NEW thing!" guys. But my son, who listens to podcasts of Tech Talk, told me that the hi-def format would be cool for the big-screen HDTV.
One day, I read that Blockbuster had run a test to determine the relative popularity of the competing formats, and that Blu-Ray had won. I hadn't heard anything about it before then, and I just wonder if they used one store in Muncie, Ind., where they offered 100 Blu-Ray copies of the dreadful, but popular, Pirates of the Caribbean, and 14 HD DVD copies of Michael Moore's Sicko. I wouldn't put it past them.
Still, the jury was out. Major movie studios were being forced to choose sides between the two formats. Disney, Fox, MGM (Sony's studio) and Lionsgate signed on with Blu-Ray, while Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks went with HD-DVD. Warner Bros., the industry giant with the largest film catalog, straddled the fence and released DVDs in both formats. It seemed like a big fight was brewing, one from which the consumer--at least in the short run--would benefit.
But just as the battle was getting started, it abruptly came to a halt. According to Business Week, Sony gave Warner $400 million to go exclusively with Blu-Ray. The money tipped Warner, and Warner tipped the industry. While Universal and the others have contracts with HD DVD through the end of this year, it seems unlikely that any new titles will be released in that format.
In a ridiculous claim, Business Week goes on to say, "The move to a single standard would prove a major victory for consumers." Yeah, let's give one company the monopoly and let them sell their overpriced machines for whatever they want. Makes me feel like a winner.
Guaranteed to be the next step: the cessation of the manufacture of regular DVDs and the release of all new titles in the Blu-Ray format, forcing consumers who want new stuff to buy a machine. Well, I'm sitting this one out. I've got my Hugh Grant collection, Blazing Saddles and a bunch of sports movies, and my wife has the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice, so we're set.
I'll wait for the next round of technology, which will probably feature some kind of download-to-burn device. In the mean time, I fervently hope that Sony's "victory," which was more hard-bought than hard-fought, will turn out to be of the Pyrrhic variety.