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At AEE: NY Times, Variety Say HD DVD is Done

Las Vegas- [NY Times] Nothing has been announced, but Variety is reporting that the last two major studios backing HD DVD — NBC Universal and Paramount — are opening the door for a switch to Blu-ray.

These studios have commitments to release some discs this year in HD DVD, but both have ended their exclusive commitment to that format, which is backed by a group led by Toshiba.

This comes after Warner Brothers, which had been issuing movies in both formats, decided to go exclusively with Sony’s Blu-ray format. Variety also reports that retailers may also put pressure on Universal and Paramount to back Blu-ray. Last summer, Blockbuster decided to go with Blu-ray only.

So what appeared to be a stalemate may, with one relatively small move by Warner, now turn out to be a quick victory for Sony. The fight between the systems has hurt studios, electronics makers and consumers. And I suspect a winner — any winner — will be welcomed by all sides (except Toshiba and Microsoft, a key partner).

Of course, one reason for the standoff is that there are real merits to both sides, as many of the comments to our post on Warner’s move expressed.

Loosely speaking, Blu-ray discs can hold more data, while HD DVD discs and players are less expensive to make. Also, several readers who have used both say they prefer the menu system on the current batch of HD DVD players. My take on this is that once the format wars are over, the normal process of engineering improvements will work through many of the kinks in Blu-ray. Costs for this sort of thing just go down, and they fall faster with volume. Menus are software and can be fixed. Again, everybody benefits from a standard.

The other interesting discussion is whether we really need a high-definition disc at all. Some people suggested that the latest round of “upconverting” DVD players can turn the 480 lines of resolution on DVDs into a very nice picture on a 720 or 1080 line HD set.

I don’t have a personal view on this. The Hansell household is currently served by a 20-year-old, 13-inch Hitachi set that is particularly well suited to foggy dream sequences. But I do know that in electronics shops, big numbers sell.

Look at the people who raced to buy cameras with far more megapixels than they ever would need for 4-by-6 prints. (I know those are fighting words to some.) If a high-definition player and disc was just a tiny bit more money than a standard one, lots of people would say, why not go for it?

But do we need discs at all? With Comcast promising high-definition downloads in 4 minutes and prices of flash memory falling like a rock, maybe we will jump right to a world where video simply lives as a file on a hard drive or flash disk.

There’s logic to that, of course, at least in an engineering sort of way. Why spend all the money and time to stamp out discs and distribute them through stores, when the information on them can be simply zapped over a network to someone’s television?

I wouldn’t bet against this vision in the long run at all. But I also suspect there will be enough demand for physical discs over the next decade to justify the industry’s moves. Consumers have a practical rationality and they understand that discs give them simplicity and control that is elusive for now in an all-digital environment.

Instead of relying on some sort of software system to find a movie, you simply pull one off your shelf, out of your pile or from under the bed — however you like to keep your movies.

And it is still not clear what you get when you buy a movie download. Consider Wal-Mart’s shuttered movie download service. People who bought movies from the service cannot move them onto new computers to play because of the digital-rights management scheme used.

As with the disc technology, all these problems with downloads will get worked through over the coming years.

But for now, if you actually want a copy of a movie that you can count on playing in the future, it’s rational to buy one in a format supported by all the players in the industry, and one that exists in three dimensions. The seeming triumph of Blu-ray only makes that easier and safer.

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