Blu-ray gets the green light

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The battle to decide on the new HD-disc standard might be over

It seems that the war was won without firing a shot, but in fact there were many salvos fired, all in vain. Blu-ray has all but won the high-definition format war and will almost certainly be the new standard for HD discs.

Last week, Warner’s backing of the format heralded a wave of victory announcements.

Tech pundits have announced that the format wars have been won by Sony’s Blu-ray, which has already captured an estimated two-thirds of disc and player sales globally and has the backing of most Hollywood studios.It certainly was a pointless war, which consumers, for the most part, failed to engage in. And rightly so, as they waited for either the war to be won or the dual players to arrive and start selling at reasonable prices. Sony Blu-Ray Disc
Who can blame them — it was VHS vs Betamax all over again. It’s as if, 20 years later, none of the big-name consumer electronic makers had learnt anything from introducing competing technologies and asking the consumer to choose.

In the blue corner, you have Sony, with its Blu-ray technology, and in the, well, other blue corner, you have Toshiba, with HD DVD format.

Both use a blue laser instead of the current red one, which allows you to cram more data on a DVD because blue light has a shorter wavelength. A current DVD can hold 4.7GB of data (or more, if it’s a commercially made movie DVD), but Blu-ray and HD DVD can hold 10 times that much — about 45GB.

For the movie industry, it means you can include many more features than previously, such as bonus material, and in HD DVD’s case the ability to be more interactive and link to online content and resources.

Commentators have watched in wonder as this Blu-ray vs HD DVD feud developed, with a potential deal fading in late 2006 just as players starting emerging, and a widening split.

It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, to borrow a phrase used to describe the merger of HP and Compaq. The merger led to HP becoming the No 1 technology company

In the 1980s, VHS finally won that format war, in spite of the fact that Betamax was a superior technology and was used by the broadcasting industry as its standard until a few years ago, when the use of digital storage media finally overtook that of tape.

The unknown story, I was told by a Sony executive years ago, was that while Sony wanted licence fees of 50 per Betamax player, JVC realised that a much lower licence fee on VHS tapes would earn it more because of higher sales.

I’ve never been able to confirm this, but it’s a compelling thesis and it underwrites everything we know about the boom in consumer electronics.

But Sony wasn’t going down without a fight. Hardware executives told me Blu-ray was the superior technology, and the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 3 was delayed as they waited to be able to include a Blu-ray player, making the PS3 something of a Trojan horse in the war.

The PS3 was also the cheapest Blu- ray player at the time and gives Sony a significant leg-up in the equally engaging games-console wars against Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

Fortune magazine pointed out a few years ago that it was Sony’s own fault because it contracted an outside company to help it with the blue laser technology, and the company patented its work.

Nonetheless, the biggest problem has been convincing a sceptical public that they need to upgrade.

“There’s nothing wrong with DVD” or “Why should I pay as much for a Blu-ray player as I could for a whole home-theatre system?” are two of the most common comments I hear. And rightly so. For most of the viewing public, good old DVD is more than ample and it’s all paid for.

But HD television, due to be introduced in South Africa in June, and HD players, represent a new quality in television and entertainment, which is indisputably better when you see it.

And once you’ve seen it, you’re hooked.

A simple comparison of scenes in Lord of the Rings I saw online recently (www.cornbread.org/FOTRCompare/) demonstrates the greater colour saturation, richer images and better quality, if you’re wondering what the fuss is about.

But no one wants the hassle of trying to navigate his/her way through the confusing choices of an HD upgrade — in much the same way I am struggling through the iniquities of buying a new car, an enterprise I find as filled with money traps as, I suspect, most people find technology.

There are several factors to consider: the TV itself (there are three versions of HD quality, and MultiChoice will broadcast only in 720p, for instance), the player (Blu-ray vs HD DVD) and the cost of buying cutting-edge technology when it might or might not be usable.

As I write this, on my laptop’s battery power, because of the infernal rolling blackouts (I refuse to call them “load shedding”, which is just a fancy way to spin the fact that Eskom can’t produce enough of its own so-called load), it’s worth remembering that we’re only a flick away from another of Eskom’s random, economy stifling power outages — and a good book requires no juice.

Shapshak is the editor of Stuff magazine.

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Through out my years, Sony has been a passion of mine.

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