Part I: A Long Time Ago…
As you may or may not remember, there was a battle going on in 2006 and 2007. A battle fought largely on US soil. A battle to win the hearts and minds of the US Consumer. If you weren’t really paying attention, though, you might have missed it—this battle wasn’t featured nightly on the evening news. While the economic and technological fight was real enough, the battle of HD-DVD v. Blu-ray to determine the physical content distribution format for high-definition video became, in many ways, the Format War that Wasn’t.
Opening Scene – Format War I: VHS v. Beta
VHS LogoFirst, a bit of back-story. Some of you are old enough to remember the videotape format war of the late 1970’s and 1980’s which pitted rival VCR, formats VHS (Video Home System), backed largely by JVC, and Betamax, backed Beta Logoby Sony, against each other in the arena of consumer acceptance. Most videophiles considered Betamax (“Beta” for short) to be technologically superior, and this is largely the way things are remembered though it is not necessarily technically accurate. Recording time (capacity) was another important factor, and this was to become an issue again nearly 30 years later during the Hi-Def DVD format war. In any case, for a variety of reasons still studied today as a key event in business and marketing history, VHS won out.
In general, this is cited as an example of what NOT to do when trying to introduce a new technological medium to the mass consumer market: early adopters aside, failure to agree on a single format and present a unified front causes confusion on the consumer’s part in the form of additional cost/benefit analysis and uptake delay, and immediacy and need re-evaluation in the form of an internal dialogue something along the lines of “I want this, but I want to wait until there’s a format winner so all the movies I buy don’t become obsolete. And besides, it costs too much right now anyway – I don’t need it that badly.” On the manufacturing side, lack of a standard delays economy of scale production efficiencies which, in turn, result in lower consumer costs and increase acceptance. As for content producers (movie studios), it just plain drives them nuts – more about this in Part II.
Fast Forward to 1997
DVD LOGOIn 1997, the consumer video market saw the evolution of consumer home video from bulky, low resolution, sequential-access video tapes to small, high-resolution, random access Digital Video Discs – DVD. (DVD was later re-dubbed Digital Versatile Disc because they can store lots of things besides video. Or was it?) DVD was to VHS what the CD was to the cassette tape a decade earlier: small, durable (no physical contact between the recording substrate and playback mechanism equals exponentially longer media life), and, most importantly, the quality of the digitally encoded content was a quantum leap ahead of VHS. At double the 240 “TV lines” of resolution available with VHS, DVD features 480 lines of progressive-scan output (480p). Maybe equally important, DVD also allows for radically improved audio quality. If you were lucky, your mass-production, studio-release movie on VHS contained Dolby 2.0 Surround audio encoding. This was better than primitive monaural or simple stereo, but nowhere near the crisp, CD-quality, multi-channel surround sound offered by DVD. With TVs becoming larger and less expensive, “home theatre” was finally beginning to realize its potential as a truly immersive experience.
More is More
DVD achieves all of these impressive things by utilizing a convergence of several technologies: improved substrate density and data compression mean that more data can be squeezed onto a disc, and narrower LASER beams mean more data can be read from Tie_IMthe disc. Think of it this way: if you need to light up just a single object by using a searchlight, that one object is going to have to be very large. Use a flashlight instead, and you can light up many more individual objects. Now imagine each one of these objects is a “pit”(or smooth spot) representing the data recorded on a DVD and you can see why having the narrowest possible LASER possible becomes very important, which sets the stage perfectly for Hi-Def DVD Part II: Blue Laser Boogaloo.
We’ve seen how the failure of industry to agree on standards inhibits consumer acceptance of new technology and learned a little about the development of DVD; tune in to Part II to learn why any of this matters and what it means to you.