Stinkin' standards wars

We tend to remember decades in our life by something that was close to our hearts, fashion statements or, for far fewer of us, technology progress. For me, the '70s are remembered by real-color television and 2in quadraplex video recorder improvements and the '80s for the war between Sony and almost everyone else over Betamax and VHS.

Sony lost that fight big time, although the company was subsequently smart enough not to let the defeat keep it out of the market. In more recent years, Sony has not been as nimble on its marketing feet as some of us had come to expect of it.

And I have heard regrets from individuals that the prestige of manufacturing broadcast equipment isn't what it used to be. That's not a criticism of Sony; the whole broadcast equipment market has evolved in directions that many of us hardware-oriented engineers have already experienced. And the difference in quality between professional, prosumer and consumer is closing rapidly.

The current fight

With Sony's experience in the standards wars with its arch rivals Panasonic and JVC, it is interesting to watch the company's behavior concerning the next generation of DVD standards. Would Sony even be in the fight for the market if the company remotely thought it could lose?

I cannot predict the winner of this battle because it will be the consumer who will choose — and not necessarily for any logical reason.

The two proposed standards on the table (hopefully there is no longer any time for a third alternative) are based on using blue lasers instead of the red lasers in conventional DVD. (It's funny how you can use the word conventional for a system that has been around for such a relatively short time.)

The blue laser, with its much shorter wavelength, allows for a large increase in the amount of data storage, which could be used for longer recordings or higher standards, such as HDTV. Longer storage is not a need at the moment, so both groups are focusing on HD.

Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD

The protagonists are Sony, with its Blu-ray, and Toshiba, with its HD-DVD. In the Sony camp is long-term rival Matsushita Electric (aka Panasonic) and a PC triple threat of Apple, Dell and HP. In the Toshiba camp sit Samsung, Microsoft and Intel.

From a disc-production perspective, HD-DVD is clearly ahead right now because the architecture is similar to current DVDs, and manufacturers should be able to use existing production equipment. HD-DVD also has its read-only standards fully agreed.

On the other side, Blu-ray's read-only standards should be in place by the time you read this column, and Sony and friends are busy trying to simplify the manufacturing processes for production.

Content is, of course, going to play a major component in the consumers' decisions about which way to jump — or whether to jump at all. And movies are a major part of that content. Paramount was deeply committed to the HD-DVD camp but has now said it will produce content in both standards. Universal and Warner studios also support HD-DVD, but rumor has it that Warner is also leaning towards playing the neutral role. Supporting Blu-ray are Walt Disney Pictures, Columbia (Sony Columbia, that is) and Twentieth Century Fox.

Paramount's decision to stand middle ground on the issue is widely believed to be because Sony will have a Blu-ray player in the PlayStation 3 when it's released in spring 2006.

Old rivals, new friends?

With all of these old rivals on the same side and Apple and Microsoft on opposite sides — with Intel users HP and Dell pitched against Intel itself — it is an odd situation indeed. Insiders at Microsoft and Intel say that “We don't want no stinkin' standards wars” has become the internal mantra for both companies.

The two sides have tried to work together in the past, but both sides have been proprietary about their architectures. At this time, with encouraged reflection about peace on earth, can these two sides get together again and agree on one standard before the disaster of two incompatible systems like Beta and VHS? We will see. Happy New Year!

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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