Watching brief

‘We love standards. That’s why we have so many of them.’ OK, it’s an old joke, but it goes to the heart of what promises to be one of the consumer electronics industry’s bloodier battles of the past few years.

The conflict in question is that between the two technology standards about to engage in battle for the hearts and minds of the world’s home entertainment lovers (most of us, in other words).


Remember when you comforted yourself that despite all the money spent on your current DVD collection, at least it was future-proof? How could digital video technology advance any further?


Think again. If the world’s electronics giants have their way, your DVDs are about to join the C-90 tape and the eight-track cartridge in the museum of technological antiquities.


The two standards in question are called HD DVD and Blu-ray. Both will allow you to watch films at a far higher quality than is attainable through current DVD technology. Both are intended to give the next generation of visual displays and audio reproduction technologies a storage platform that can do them justice.


Like boxing fans lining up behind heavyweight fighters, the biggest brand names in electronics have been throwing their lot in with one or the other.In the red corner we have HD DVD, championed by Toshiba and backed by, among others, Microsoft and Intel. In the blue corner (that should really be blu-corner), the Blu-ray camp includes Sony, Panasonic and Apple.


So far, not a punch has been landed in anger. They’re still shuffling around the edge of the ring eyeing each other warily.


That will change soon, however, because devices are about to appear on the market. Panasonic, for example, yesterday said it would put a Blu-ray player on the market by the end of the year.


Of course, all this will sound terribly familiar to anyone who remembers the early days of the video recorder. Technically speaking, you could barely get a cigarette paper between Video’s two pioneer formats VHS and Betamax (the old chestnut that Betamax was the superior technology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny). There was even a third contender, a Philips-developed platform called V2000 which was hailed as genuinely innovative in its day.


VHS triumphed mainly because of factors unconnected with technology. The manufacturers in the VHS camp achieved mass-production and mass-distribution more effectively than their rivals, allowing the machines to be offered to consumers on attractive terms.


Crucially, the content was there. It soon became an article of faith that if you wanted to see a film, you had a better chance of finding what you wanted on VHS than any of the others.


That’s why, in the case of the new DVD battle, who you’ve got in your technology corner might not be the decisive factor. The world’s entertainment giants are also making their decisions.


This is what it may well come down to in the end. The question won’t be ‘should it be Blu-ray or HD DVD?’ but ‘which one’s got Harry Potter?’


Andrew Lee
Editor
The Engineer & The Engineer Online