In the fast-changing world of video tech, two years seems an eternity. The question is whether it's a fatal delay for high-definition movies on disk.
Toshiba announced Tuesday that it was abandoning the high-def disk battle, giving the victory to Sony and its Blu-ray format. And Toshiba isn't messing around, saying it would get out of the market by the end of next month. The company sounds as if it just wants to flush out the existing inventory of its loser HD DVD players.
Sony now has a clear field to sell movies and TV shows on disk. But the two-year fight with Toshiba over formats had gummed up the market, forcing studios to choose sides in releasing movies and stalling consumer purchases. Buyers hesitated to end up with a disk version of Betamax, the video format that lost to VHS in the last great format war.
But Sony hardly has a clear field overall. Compared with two years ago, consumers now have a vast array of choices for getting high-def content. New telco systems from Verizon, AT&T, and others are launching with dozens of HD channels. Verizon alone promises 150 in a year or two and 200 eventually. HDTV offerings are also surging on traditional cable and satellite systems, with DirecTV nearing 100 and Comcast running fast to keep up.
And suddenly nipping at the heels of all of those is the Internet, where consumers can now download HD movies and TV shows. The downloads come from nascent services like Apple's iTunes and Vudu that offer only 100 or so titles each. But the studios that produce video entertainment are intrigued by the Internet, which cuts out bulky, balky middlemen like Sony, Wal-Mart, and Comcast.
And so are consumers. Even cable's video-on-demand services have struggled, at least compared with the initial flush of Internet video, writes James L. McQuivey, a market analyst at Forrester Research: "Competition to satisfy consumers' on-demand needs through the Internet has taken off like a rocket."
Blu-ray still has advantages. Consumers like disks—they offer convenience and simplicity. The disk players remain the easiest way to watch a movie, once the disk is in hand. The quality of high-definition video also varies, and Blu-ray disks best any cable, satellite, or Internet version. There simply is no beating the quality of video and audio that can be loaded onto a Blu-ray disk, with its vast storage capacity.
Blu-ray, for example, is now the only place to get the true 1080p resolution, which is the top video quality that can be played back on some TVs. Vudu claims to offer movies in 1080p, but its Internet delivery forces compression that won't match Blu-ray's quality, at least not yet.
But few consumers can see the resolution differences, particularly on sets that are 42 inches and smaller. Even on larger sets, only videophiles might care. High definition in any of its many flavors still impresses most consumers. So it's unclear if a small quality advantage will be enough for Blu-ray to get firmly established in America's living rooms before competitors match its quality. Two years was a long time to lose.