Blu-ray, HD DVD Stew Thickens

Gadget geeks engaged in the digital equivalent of reading chicken entrails to determine which high-def format the market will ultimately embrace received mixed signals from the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps on Monday, which were promptly rebutted by the opposition.

First came the news that 70 percent of the high-definition discs purchased by consumers in the first quarter were in the Blu-ray format, according to trade magazine Home Media. The other 30 percent were HD DVD.

In another development on the format war front, an English-language Web site that relied on content translated from Chinese reported that Wal-Mart has contracted with a manufacturer in China to produce a low-cost high-def player. Rumors are placing the price point as low as US$50 to as much as $299 — which is still not much.

At first, the word was that these products would support the HD DVD format. Then, questions arose as to whether the report was translated correctly. Wal-Mart, not surprisingly, is keeping quiet.

In short, the news is inconclusive, leaving long-term trend watchers to fall back on existing indicators that have already been thoroughly examined.

That hasn’t stopped proponents of both formats from highlighting or debunking the news.

Disc Wars

Shortly after Home Media’s research became public, the Blu-ray Disc Association issued its own figures and supporting statement.

Blu-ray Disc has become the first high-definition format to surpass 1 million sales, a milestone achieved in less than a year, the Blu-ray Disc Association said.

The format’s steady growth trend is likely to continue, the group added, based on the fact that seven of the eight major studios are releasing an increasing number of blockbuster movies in the Blu-ray high-def format.

“Sales of Blu-ray Disc titles have taken off since the first of the year,” said Andy Parsons, chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Association’s U.S. Promotion Committee and senior vice president of new product development at Pioneer Electronics.

“Blu-ray Discs have been outselling HD DVD by more than two to one since the beginning of the year,” he noted, “and the gap is steadily widening.”

The numbers are hardly indicators of true traffic and demand, countered HD DVD Evangelist for Microsoft Kevin Collins.

“The period between January to March has been lean on HD DVD titles that have gone out,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “so an announcement that they are selling … more is not news.”

Whither Wal-Mart?

It would be big news, though, if Wal-Mart, the U.S.’ largest retailer, were to deliver a low-cost player that supported only one standard. Indeed, it would likely be the tipping point that high-def hungry consumers — and retailers — have been desperate for as they wait for the format wars to shake out.

It is unlikely, however, that Wal-Mart is willing to make a bet on the technology, Don Patrican, executive vice president, Maxell Corporation of America, told the E-Commerce Times. “My guess is that this will be an all-purpose player.”

XXX Factor

So, what will finally push the market in one direction or another? The direction the adult entertainment industry takes is one closely watched indicator.

It looks as though the sector will coalesce around HD DVD eventually, said Manny Ulele, CTO of CDGirls.com.

“Right now, we produce in both versions,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “However, my opinion is that eventually most of the adult content format will be available primarily on HD DVD, because — for technical reasons — it is harder to produce on Blu-ray.”

User Friendliness

HD DVD is also more user friendly — at least, at the moment.

The Playstation 3 in Europe and abroad is currently driving the increase in Blu-ray title sales, noted Barbara Bickham, president of TechGenii.

However, the HD DVD format is more versatile, she told the E-Commerce Times.

“HD DVD format can be played in all currently available DVD players,” Bickham pointed out. “So, if you purchase an HD DVD of a title — I have ‘Seabiscuit’ — it will play in the DVD player that you currently have. HD DVD titles don’t currently play in the Playstation 3.”

In actuality, both formats are not compatible with standard DVD players; however, HD DVD is the only format with studios releasing combo-discs, according to Collins. HD DVD combo-discs feature HD DVD content on one side, and a standard DVD version on the other that allows playback in existing DVD players.

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