HD DVD - is it a dying format?

Since Warner announced their plans to drop HD DVD later this year, rumours and reports have been flying around the internet and traditional press that the formats days are numbered. Reports of studios dropping the format are being denied as quickly as rumours appear, but it proves one thing - the 'media' in general believe that HD DVD is on its way out.

At the current CES in Las Vegas, it has been reported that Microsoft have backtracked on their full HD DVD support and according to Xbox marketing manager, Albert Penello, the possibility of a Blu-Ray drive appearing for the platform depends on consumer demand. A stark change from their position even just a few months ago.

Likewise, it has been claimed that Paramount are going to be switching back to Blu-Ray due to a clause in their contract giving them that right if Warner changed allegiance. This rumour has been given much more weight given it appeared in the respected Financial Times - however, the studio have been quick to deny such reports. As things stand no-one knows Paramount's position other than those in the studio that are privy to such information - anything you read outside of an official press announcement should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The key point to remember is that even if, and it's a big if, all studios dropped HD DVD support tomorrow, there are still more than 400 discs available for the format. These discs feature pristine transfers with stunning picture and sound quality and they're not going to vanish overnight. It will be some time before we know the full implications of Warner's announcement - there is little doubt that it has been a very serious blow for the HD DVD supporters and any more-large studio defections will almost certainly spell the end in terms of long-term software support. However, your collections aren't going to suddenly become useless and they'll be playable for as long as hardware is around to support them.

What do I think will happen? I do expect that Universal and Paramount are very closely watching how things develop over the coming weeks - HD DVD is destined to become a niche in what is already only a niche market and in terms of audience the number of users is unlikely to increase significantly in the future. It would be almost inconceivable for either of them to be not considering moving to the middle ground - Paramount will almost certainly switch to a dual-format position as soon as their contract allows and Universal, the biggest HD DVD supporter, must be looking at their Blu-Ray options if they want to remain players in the HD market.

What of Toshiba, HD DVDs main hardware backer? Well without software their player sales will dry up so I expect we'll be looking at a shift towards dual format players coming from them in the next 12-24 months. Samsung, who have previously announced a dual-format player, may well quietly shelve these plans as there is little benefit to them spending time and money building in support for a potentially obsolete format.

Overall, however, I think these latest development may well be a huge setback for the take up of HD. While the Playstation 3 will provide a steady stream of new customers for the studios, standalone sales are pretty poor and don't look likely to improve in the short term. With the release of Profile 2.0, I think we may see a more concerted effort in shifting hardware and as technology improves more people will opt for standalone units, until then uncertainty in both features and the technology will stunt growth.

Disc-based HD will never be as popular as DVD and will most likely be a stop-gap solution while we await reliable HD downloads (which won't be the norm for another 5-10 years), solid-state media if it continues to drop in price or even holographic storage which would allow for ultra HD offering up to 4 times current HD resolution on huge 100+ inch displays. Region coding of Blu-Ray is a contentious issue for the early adopters but it's not really an issue to the average UK consumer and I think that if and when the format does move towards the mass market region codes are likely to make very little difference.

Personally I would have liked to see 51GB HD DVD take the lead as it offers everything the consumer would want, but with some studios wanting even more control over who can play their films the DRM-heavy Blu-Ray was always a more interesting and tempting proposition - and it is studio support that will win the 'war'...

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