Is DVD Format Pendulum Momentarily Still?

Toshiba says HD DVD players should start hitting U.S. store shelves later this month; Sony has just announced that Blu-ray products will follow suit on May 23.

But "who's really winning the next-gen format war" still seems to be a matter of perception. A month ago (and maybe a year ago), a lot of analysts were putting their money, figuratively speaking, on Blu-ray. They (and a lot of trade publications) seemed to reason that having lost the VHS-Betamax war a few decades ago in a bitter contest, Sony would pull out all the stops on this format go-round. Clearly, it seemed until recently, the Blu-ray camp was winning and final victory was only a matter of time.

Admittedly, that general view was more than mere perception. Blu-ray clearly had appeased jittery content owners and providers in Hollywood more than the HD DVD camp had. And, technically speaking, the Blu-ray disc holds more content than its sole competitor. But a big part of Blu-ray's initial success seems tied into the pending release of the Sony PlayStation 3, following the supply-challenged launch of Microsoft's Xbox 360 in late 2005 that uses only the HD DVD format.

But perception can be a fickle animal, and if The New York Times has anything to say about it this week (and it does), some analysts are now starting to either call the format wars a tossup, or said they may start leaning towards the HD DVD side. That changing perception (if accurately perceived) is being partly attributed to a likely delayed launch of the PlayStation upgrade until later this summer or possibly next fall.

The reason given for that possible delay is being cited as a second reason for a perception shift: the alleged final troubleshooting in beta stage and mass manufacture of the relatively complicated Blu-ray technology (which, unlike HD DVD, requires expensive assembly line retooling compared to today's standard DVD disc production).

The eventual videogame launch, if timed correctly, could represent a huge initial burst of sales for Blu-ray DVD players because PlayStation 3 will include the new technology in its consoles-- thus placing new high-def players in the home for purposes other than videogames, notably HD movies. (Sony will also sell one of its Vaio computers with a Blu-ray drive.)

So observers say Sony needs to get it right from the beginning and any delays may be costly in more ways than one. With both formats' products due to launch in coming weeks, some analysts also point to another factor that could make a big difference with cost-conscious consumers: Blu-ray discs may hold a lot more HD content than the competition, but Blue-ray players will cost considerably more than the HD DVD players. Both formats' players, in fact, are expected to come with price points several times higher than the cost of today's DVD players, so suppliers and retailers can expect some sticker shock from even some early adopters.