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The State of Blu-ray and HD-DVD

by The DVD Insider September 20, 2005

It has been two-and-a-half years since next generation DVD was first announced (actually CES of 2003) by Sony. To regain its position as the 'guides to the future', the DVD Forum adopted a different blue ray technology approach: AOD (now known as HD-DVD) and thus, even before present DVD products had gained widespread use, the warlords battle for royalties began anew.

While the two "standards" share blue laser technology - featuring a shorter wavelength and a more precise ability to focus the laser - there are enough differences to make it obvious to even the most casual Tech Watch reader to realize that a compromise solution will be difficult.

More importantly it will be too complex and too expensive to simply take the route Sony took in 2004 of throwing all of the technologies into a single burner and let the consumer choose the write/read solution he or she wants to use. Because the construction of the media and writing layer for BD and HD-DVD are completely different between the two, the chance for a compromise solution - one where both sides save face - appears to be slim to none!

Sony has Blu-ray all keyed up for the Playstation 3 (Microsoft recently endorsed HD-DVD for the Xbox 360), and Blu-ray offers 25GB per layer. HD-DVD offers 15GB per layer but reads and writes data at the same depth as DVDs, enabling possibly better backward compatibility. Recently, Toshiba demonstrated a 45GB triple-layer HD-DVD. TDK showed a 100GB quad-layer Blu-ray. JVC demonstrated a 33.5GB disc with a 25GB Blu-ray layer combined with 8.5GB DL DVD layers. It's nothing but a blue mess!

The industry appears to have learned nothing from the years of revenue lost in the standards battles. As a result, IDC in their aggressive DVD forecasts show good growth for DVD±R with burner prices now as low as $40 at retail and media in the 30 - 50 cents range but virtually no sales for blue laser. In the war of news releases from the two sides, the movie studies are fairly evenly split on the support of either BD or HD-DVD. All of the copy protection schemes they're pushing to have built into the next-gen discs are almost maliciously attacking consumer wishes. The concept of fair use is all but an anachronism.

Fortunately for software and content developers, both sides have agreed on the same codecs which will simplify development for both approaches. Both will implement MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 and Microsoft's VC-1 (WMV HD). Both can support today's 480p and 480i content presentation which is not a reason to buy a new digital TV set. However if you have an HDTV set with 720p and 1080p/i video viewing you may be persuaded to "need" blue laser recording.

While DVD was a significant improvement in viewing quality over VHS, the viewing quality between DVD and HDTV only really becomes apparent in side-by-side comparisons. Until recently that quality improvement was not one that could be afforded by the average consumer without a big dent in the family budget. Panasonic's commitment to sub-$2,000 plasmas will help the firm maintain its price/volume leadership. However, except for the die-hard sports enthusiast, $2,000 is still classified as a major purchase and most retail sales people can't tell you how or why the displays are better than the one you already own other than they say "HDTV" on the box!

A compromise specification is virtually impossible because of the read/write approaches of HD-DVD and BD. There are significant differences as to the placement of the write/read layer of the disc and this affects every aspect of the separate technologies. We don't believe Hollywood, broadcasters and content developers are concerned with which blue technology is implemented. But they should be deadly serious about not revisiting the mistakes of today's CD and DVD technology.

High definition content has provided content owners the opportunity to start with a fresh slate and get it right this time. They aren't going to miss the chance to put the horse back in the barn. The next generation of content protection for video and audio content they are proposing behind the scenes is extremely robust. These folks have become quick studies of digital technologies over the past five years as they've watched DVD and on-line services get stronger, better, bigger, faster and more ubiquitous. This time around they are going to make certain they don't leave any money on the table.

The problem with the BD and HD-DVD camps is that they are so smitten to win the love of the fair Hollywood maiden, both have promised her anything she wants.

This focus is not on a cheap media or better write/read technology, but super rich digital rights management (DRM) technology. Their DRM proposals include digital watermarking, programmable cryptography and self-destruct codes. Rather than determine which is best for all parties - including the consumer - their solution was to throw them all into the mix!

Both sides like (Hollywood loves) Advanced Access Control System (AACS) which requires your player to maintain connections to the content provider thru the Internet. If the player or disc doesn't pass their security check it isn't a big thing. The provider will simply send the player a "self-destruct code" ROM update that will blow up the player. Ok so it won't physically blow up. Instead the player will simply become unusable until you meekly take the unit into a service center and a repair technician reprograms the player. In addition, there's some concern that your entire library of discs that were encoded with the broken security may also be added to a black list and be rendered unplayable.

The fact that the old version of DivX failed because people didn't want to have a connection to the content provider after they had made a purchase seems to be totally irrelevant.

And with all of the software technology at our fingertips wouldn't it be easy enough to write a little code that would swing into action when the player read the errant disc? You know a message could flash on the screen - "You're a bad person for using an illegally copied disc. Now send me $5!," or "You dirty rotten rat… you just stole a movie from (insert name of studio)!!"

That would be enough to turn even the most callous thief to tears.

Just in case the consumer could get past these hurdles, they've added another. This is a renewability method that lets content providers implement dynamic updates of compromised code. This is advanced form of CSS (content scramble system) called SPDC that they are hoping doesn't get defeated hours after its release (this time around). Simply stated, every time someone cracks the code the encryption algorithm will "learn from its mistakes" and improve the code. Now that's a challenge no DEFCON hacker can refuse!!!

If these fail, Hollywood has a fallback plan when the 15-year-old kid cracks it all… their lobbyists will put the squeeze on Congress to "protect us from ourselves." That certainly won't stop tapes from being misplaced from the studio's postproduction facilities and copies being sold in the bazaars of Taiwan or Hong Kong or on Broadway before the release. But it is a move in the right direction... at least in their opinion!


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