August 11, 2009

image Despite being a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association since 2005, Apple has lagged on integrating Blu-ray into Macs, pinning the blame on licensing issues and not being coy about iTunes’ competition with physical media. But if Toshiba has come to the point that it feels it needs Blu-ray to be competitive, than those licensing issues must be more like a landfill full of hurt than just a bag for Apple to continue abstaining.

True, Toshiba plays in the traditional CE deck business, something Apple’s not going to do, and Blu-ray becomes much more interesting in the PC market as a data archiving medium offering greater capacity than rewriteable DVD. Media prices will need to come down considerably for that to happen.. But even until then, many Mac users would probably benefit from Apple supporting Blu-ray even if they had no interest in the latest high-definition discs from Hollywood.

This is because Mac OS X (even, unfortunately, Snow Leopard, as I’ve learned) cannot natively handle AVCHD, in particular the MPEG Transport Stream (.MTS) file format. This is a significant disappointment given that it is used by major camcorder manufacturers such as Sony, Canon and Panasonic as the way video is stored on hard drives and flash memory. It is also surprising given that Apple is touting how QuickTime X is built on such a modern foundation and the role that Apple and QuickTime had in the development of H.264. And, finally, it puts Apple at a competitive disadvantage versus Windows 7, which includes native file format support for MTS.

MTS has been a headache for many users frustrated by its lack of support. Just (Disclosure: this verb sponsored by Microsoft) Bing it and you’ll see that many of the references to it are pleas for file format converters. Frankly, I don’t know how someone without an Elgato Turbo H.264 deals with a modern camcorder on a Mac (but Elgato, please add support for AVCHD Lite)..

So what’s the bugaboo around MTS? It comes down to companies being unwilling to spend the dollars to license officially or use some of the open source options. While I’m not familiar with all the details, it seems that to support MTS you need to license at least some portion of the technology needed to play back Blu-ray. Ergo, if Apple supported Blu-ray, it would probably have the IP needed to support MTS natively. If rumors about future versions of iTunes supporting Blu-ray turn out to be false, any Mac users hoping to deal with files from their modern camcorders as naturally as they do JPEGs should hope for Blu-ray Macs.

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February 17, 2009

In her debut post at TechCrunch, Sarah Lacey talks about some of the challenges being faced by Sirius and Blu-ray. Her two points can be boiled down to a misaken assumption by the two technologies’ backers that that the past will repeat, especially in the Web era. Many of the commenters have pointed out some flaws in her arguments (Diggnation vs. Dark Knight?), but I offer these points in response.

It may be the case that Blu-ray disc revenues (or even players) are not growing fast enough to offset the decline in their DVD counterparts, but we are currently in a transition time between the two technologies.

About the only things that Sirius and Blu-ray have in common is a focus on content quality and appeal to an older demographic. While Sarah Lacey uses a “focus group of two” (doubling the n from the usual cliche) in her and her husband to discuss the myriad alternatives available to watch movies today, these are currently niche alternatives and, as I’ve often said, while Netflix streaming may be fine for renting, digital distribution has not provided a convenient alternative to discs for ownership.

Ironically, one of the products that has the best chance of broadening the audience for movie streaming services is Blu-ray players. Blu-ray’s biggest competitor – the DVD – is at an inherent disadvantage as the -price gap narrows for hardware. Sirius and XM, on the other hand, could not effectively follow where consumers went for their music – to PCs and portable players. MP3 and Internet radio options for the vehicle aren’t great, either, but consumers have coped or done without.

Satellite radio may have had a loose precedent in the success of cable and satellite TV, but the usage scenario was very different. A majority of US consumers spend enough time at home consuming quality entertainment to justify the investment in paid television service; not so for satellite radio. In fact, outside of capital expenditures, Sirius and XM ran up huge debt on subscriber costs and acquiring exclusive content. While Blu-ray certainly has entailed marketing costs, its battle with HD-DVD was one that was much more lopsided than Sirius vs. XM. Yes, Blu-ray, like Sirius XM, faces competition from Internet sources, but the mainstream of the market is its to lose over at least the next five years.

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September 26, 2008

I agree with almost all the points that Rick Clancy makes as he places his bet that Blu-ray discs will be around for far greater than five years. That said, I actually think few in the industry would disagree with that. The question I’ve been asked more often is how long will Blu-ray grow, especially compared to the decade or so of growth that DVD saw, and how deep will its penetration reach, at least in the U.S..

Compared to the near monopoly that DVD had as a format for selling movies, Blu-ray will face more competition, including stronger legacy competition in the DVD. However, barring any breakthroughs such as DECE changing the nature of downloads, Blu-ray will continue to offer a superior convenience factor for movie buying.. (As for rentals, digital distribution may make inroads there more quickly.) Therefore, I think that Blu-ray will grow for more than the next five years, and see it starting to peter out in about seven or eight years.

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March 6, 2008

image FT.com is reporting that Sony is talking with Microsoft about the possibility of Blu-ray drives on the Xbox 360. This could come in two forms, of course — a new SKU with an integrated Blu-ray drive or an external drive similar to the one Microsoft offered for HD DVD. The case is tough for either one, though.

If Microsoft thought there was value in adding a high-definition or high-capacity disc format to the 360, it had a choice of two during its development before Microsoft had kicked HD DVD evangelism into high-gear. Of course, after Microsoft did that, it still didn’t add an internal HD DVD drive to the 360, citing concern about not forcing such a drive on consumers. Especially now, with a significant title library out there, it doesn’t make any sense to add cost to a home console. The 360 is clearly competitive as is.

Then there’s the external drive scenario. It made more sense for Microsoft to offer an external drive when there wasn’t much choice for HD DVD drives at retail. Microsoft was able to deliver a low-priced option by piggybacking onto the console. While I’m sure an add-on Blu-ray drive for the 360 would cost less than the standalone players out there, there are many more companies offering Blu-ray players, and now that there is no direct format rivalry, the number is bound to increase while the average prices decrease, further removing the incentive. Without an evangelism imperative, Microsoft can now focus on other means of getting high-definition video to its game console.

Are there any Xbox 360 owners out there who want an external Blu-ray drive for their console?

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March 3, 2008

HD DVD scores in the format warCould Toshiba become the most progressive consumer electronics company when it comes to digital distribution?

As I and others have noted, HD DVD was never the primary factor in slowing the adoption of Blu-ray. According to NPD’s research, satisfaction with existing DVD players was the most cited reason among those who had no plans to purchase a high-definition disc player when we surveyed consumers last year. Therefore, the end of HD DVD has not meant a free pass for Blu-ray.

In an interview with the WSJ, Toshiba’s Atsutoshi Nishida points out the value of a diversified corporate portfolio, noting that HD DVD was but one of 45 strategic product groups within the electronics conglomerate. He also divulges plans to stay or become relevant in the twin forces squeezing Blu-ray from the past (upconverting DVDs) and the future (digital downloads) to continue to compete indirectly with Blu-ray. Nishida points to wired technologies that are becoming wireless (a reference to HDMI?).

Of course, Toshiba’s PC strength to which Nishida refers is in notebooks, and most of the connectivity scenarios he discusses have been focused on stationery PCs (although that is changing). In any case, it seems clear that Toshiba will have more occasion to work closely with its HD DVD promotion partner Microsoft. The conspiracy theorists may have been wrong, but the format war has brought at least one major electronics company to look beyond the disc.

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February 24, 2008

In speaking with several reporters about the victory, I noted NPD’s research last year that found satisfaction with existing DVD players to be a more common reason for abstaining from the high-definition disc market than the format war with HD-DVD. As digital media gadfly and PR veteran par excellence Andy Marken notes, “The difference is now the BD folks won’t be able to blame Toshiba for holding back the success of high def disc sales.”

Blu-ray was the second must-win AV standards war after LCD vs. plasma that the company has won in the past few years by leveraging selective specification superiority — curious for the consumer electronics company that is so frequently identified with being a lifestyle brand. Blu-ray’s main technical difference vs. HD-DVD was that it offered 50 GB per disc as opposed to 30 GB.

Sony and the BDA didn’t make the capacity argument directly to consumers as much to the trade media, particularly before studio support became more relevant. However, Sony was the first company to proselytize 1080p or “full HD” to consumers, which has helped to give large-screen LCD the upper hand.

Further momentum behind BD can only help promote 1080p TVs (not that they seem to need much help). It will also be very interesting to see how much the standardization of Blu-ray now helps sell the PS3 after the PS3 was kind enough to do the same for Blu-ray since 2006. Sony’s content holdings may not have been enough to overcome the challenges of UMD as a movie format, but the virtually guaranteed support of Blu-ray by Sony Pictures was a validation of Sony’s integration of hardware and content. Of course, the equal loyalty of Disney and Fox was critical as well.

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January 2, 2008

Microsoft Xbox HD-DVD player

Rumors are circulating that Bill Gates will announce in what may be his final CES keynote that Microsoft will add HD-DVD to the Xbox 360. Microsoft has presented arguments against doing so in the past, offering that game players should not have to pay for a technology that they don’t need. At the same time, though, Microsoft has gone upmarket with the the 360 Premium configuration, and the addition of a larger hard drive contributes no more to the Xbox gaming experience as an HD-DVD drive would. Microsoft has already reduced the price of the external drive; an integrated one would be a logical next step as the component costs have come down.

There’s also the factor of how many external Xbox HD-DVD drive buyers would have preferred to have the internal drive rather than add another box to a crowded home theater, or how many are resisting purchasing an external drive for that reason. Furthermore, while the tie ratios of Blu-ray movie titles to the PlayStation 3 can be debated, there is ample evidence that many PS3 buyers are purchasing at least a few movies, and the HD-DVD camp simply can’t ignore the high volumes of the PS3 Trojan horse. Integrating an HD-DVD drive into at least one 360 Premium configuration is an opportunity for Microsoft to put its machines where its mouth is.

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September 4, 2007

In recruiting John Sculley to Apple, Steve Jobs allegedly asked the Pepsi executive, “Do you want to want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water or do you want to change the world?” Well, now you don’t have to decide between refreshment and resolution, as long as you’re changing the world of high-definition video discs. At mycokerewards.com, the highest-end electronics product one can aspire to is a Toshiba HD-DVD player, yours free for just 13,125 points, and a significant technological step-up from the product that requires the second highest number of points, a Caonon miniDV camcorder for 12,187 points.  Now the question is, will Pepsi provide a way to get a Blu-ray player?

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