Just as most consumers have finished moving from VHS to DVD, two new formats are being positioned as DVD successors. Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs promise even richer video and sound, and still more features, bonuses and (of course) ads.

Blu-ray and HD-DVD are the main types of optical media that use blue lasers for writing and reading data, as opposed to the red lasers used for CDs and DVDs. A study by Santa Clara Consulting Group predicted that sales for blue laser players and movies would reach $7 billion worldwide by 2010.

On the surface, this would appear to be a repeat of VHS vs. Betamax ("Beta"): two video formats introduced at roughly the same time, left to battle it out in the marketplace. VHS won that war, thanks to longer tape capacity, and the release of more movies in that format than Beta–mainly because Beta tapes could only hold an hour of video each.

Studying the past only goes so far to predict a winner in this case, however. First, storage capacity for both formats is large. Blu-ray discs can currently hold about 25Gb of data compared to DVD’s 4.7Gb. The development path for the discs includes quadruple-layer discs that will eventually hold up to 200Gb. HD-DVD will have multiple configurations ranging from 15Gb to a triple-layered 90Gb version. All of these are well beyond what is needed to display feature-length movies in HD format. Even if absolute capacity gave Blu-ray an advantage, existing DVD equipment can be retooled for use with HD-DVD, whereas Blu-ray requires all-new equipment. Blu-ray discs also are reportedly harder to produce. Both formats have the backing of several major studios and manufacturers. All in all, the race appears even.

DVD adoption was helped along by Sony’s inclusion of DVD drives in the PS2 video game console. Although Sony has said it will include Blu-ray drives in the PS3, Microsoft has said it will make HD-DVD drives available as add-ons to its 360, again largely adding up to a tie.

It is worth noting that even DVD, which had the quickest path to mass adoption of any consumer electronics device ever (defined as more than 50% household penetration), took several years to take off. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) noted in 2001 that DVD took four years to reach 10% penetration of US households.

The CEA put DVD penetration at 81% in March 2001.

Beyond showing how quickly DVD attained mass acceptance, this also shows that DVD is ensconced as a video-viewing platform. Besides everyone already having DVDs, blue-laser formats require HDTV monitors to fully appreciate their quality.

These are equal barriers to adoption, favoring neither format. In fact, if these formats are to supplant DVD, it is likely that most players will have to support both. Video players have become more flexible since past format wars. Many DVD players now also play audio CDs, mp3 discs, VCDs, SVCDs, DiVX files, and other formats. It’s not that the individual formats are more open or flexible, but that consumer electronics appeal to a wider base of potential consumers when they play more formats. Toshiba, for instance, has already announced its desire to launch a player which could handle both Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Ricoh has launched an optical device for use in players to the same effect.

So neither format is likely to trounce the other. The bigger concern is permanent niche status. If both formats are pricey, or combo players fail to take off, they are likely to end up like laserdisc. This high-end alternative to VHS never reached a mass adoption thanks to high pricing and a feeling by most consumers that VHS was good enough. Should Blu-ray and HD-DVD follow the same path, consumers may just decide that DVD is good enough.

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