One Format War Is Over. Is Another Beginning?

3 min read

Format wars. They’ve been the Achilles’ heel of the consumer electronics industry, and the bane of consumers, since the VHS vs. Betamax hostilities of the early 1980s. Standards-­setting organizations like the IEEE and industry consortia hold countless meetings to avoid them, yet they break out with astonishing regularity.

The battle of the blue disks seems, finally, to be over. For several years now, two separate industry alliances, one led by Sony, Panasonic, and Philips, the other by Toshiba and NEC, have clashed over the next-generation digital disk format.

PHOTO: Paul Sakuma/AP Photo

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At CES, wireless was sizzling--wireless USBs, WiMedia, WiMax, HDMI, and extreme proximity wireless like Sony’s new Transfer Jet technology.

The new cool gizmos use flash. High-definition camcorders that store 5 or more hours of video on a 32-gigabyte memory card will make disk and tape cameras as dated as the dryâ''plate kind.

Both contenders--Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD--use blue lasers to read and write data and have exquisitely high-quality video resolution. The biggest ­differences between them: Blu-ray has larger storage capacity and is more expensive; HD-DVD has slightly less storage and is cheaper. Neither advantage has been compelling. And since moving from DVD to either Blu-ray or HD-DVD means getting a new player and a high-definition TV, consumers haven’t exactly been stampeding to the stores to change over. On top of which film studios have been putting out high-definition home movies in both formats, which always gives consumers pause.

But days before the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in January, Warner Brothers--a studio that had been bankrolling HD-DVD big time--announced it would no longer support that format. The HDâ''DVD alliance immediately canceled its long-scheduled CES press conference, a move that signaled surrender.

There’s polite murmuring about working toward a standard, but that could also be players, sotto voce, choosing up teams

So if you’ve been on the fence about upgrading your home video system, go ahead and climb down on the Blu-ray side.

But just as one conflict ends, a new one is heating up. Oh, the sides are politely murmuring about working toward a standard, but those murmurs could also be the sound of ­players choosing up teams.

At stake? The ability to send free, over-the-air local television, broadcast to cellphones and other consumer electronics devices, over U.S. broadcasters’ existing spectrum.

At CES, Woo Paik, president and CTO of LG Electronics, brought out prototypes of what LG calls MPH devices--Mobile Pedestrian Handhelds. He said the company will be ready to ship products about a year from now. Then Samsung’s director of digital media, J.W. Park, brought out models of what Samsung calls Advanced-VSB devices. The two sets of devices decode two different technologies that ­modify the U.S. digital broadcast system to receive a strong signal at normal driving speeds, something that’s not currently possible.

The idea has a lot going for it. With a tuner chip added to your cellphone, iPod, or other portable device, you’ll be able to watch local news, sports, weather--anything you can get over the air. It’ll be an inexpensive extra for manufacturers and a nice feature for consumers. It’ll cost broadcasters a bit to add the necessary equipment to their towers, but they’ll benefit from the larger audiences.

But, alas, now there are at least two competing technologies for a prize only one can win: no broadcaster is going to put multiple sets of equipment on its towers, and no consumer is going to change devices or swap out cards while driving down the highway. Both LG and Samsung made it clear that they’re moving ahead and will continue to do so.

We’ll likely hear a lot more about this as the year goes on. Stay tuned.

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