Analysis: Behind Apple's Blu-Ray Move

Apple did more than just affiliate with a trade group looking to develop and promote a new technology when it announced plans last week to join the Blu-Ray Disc Association’s board of directors. The company also inserted itself right into the middle of a battle over high-definition DVD.

The Battleground

Unless you’re on the bleeding edge of home video, you may not realize that HDTV has higher resolution than DVD. HDTV’s two main resolutions are the progressive 720P format (1,280-by-720 without interlacing) and 1080i (1,920-by-1,080 with interlacing). A widescreen DVD uses 852-by-480 resolution. Satellite and cable companies are already compressing these images and lowering resolutions to fit more of them in a stream, but if you can view a movie in HDTV from an antenna (that is, over the air), you may be surprised to see a significantly better picture than even a “special edition” DVD of the same title.

Apple has already bought into the HD revolution, with even the entry-level iMovie now supporting HD video in iLife ’05, even though the least expensive camcorder you can get to make the stuff costs about $3,500.

All this HD video content needs a better storage method than the now decade-old DVD. Today’s single-layer 4.7GB DVD discs can hold nearly two hours of MPEG-2 compressed video, but the same disc would hold less than 20 minutes of HD video. Even using dual-layer discs, no one really wants a Lord of the Rings: Return of the King HD special edition that requires 13 DVDs just for the feature. More capacity is required.

Blu-Ray Versus HD-DVD

That, of course, started horrible war. The Blu-Ray Disc Association (BDA) promotes a new high-capacity standard based on a blue laser, compared to the red laser used to read today’s optical medial. Blu-Ray discs, known by the BD abbreviation (as in BD-ROM and BD-Video), pack up to 25GB on a single layer, and 50GB on dual-layer discs, in the same form factor as the familiar CD and DVD. That’s enough for two hours of HD video on a single-layer disc. Blu-Ray has an impressive list of backers that includes Sony, Disney, Dell, HP, Hitachi, LG Electronics (Goldstar), Matsushita (Panasonic), Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, TDK, Thomson, Vivendi Universal (games), and Electronic Arts.

The important names missing from that list are Toshiba, NEC, Viacom, NBC Universal, and Time Warner. They back the competing HD-DVD format that’s also based on a blue laser, but uses similar manufacturing techniques to DVD. The resulting discs are supposed to be less expensive, but they definitely hold less—15GB per layer instead of Blu-Ray’s 25GB per layer.

Although each format’s players will be backward compatible with today’s DVD discs, no player is expected to read both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs, nor are content providers expected to produce discs in both formats.

That draws the battle line—whichever format does the most for consumers will probably win. Sony invented Blu-Ray and supports it not only in electronics but through Sony Pictures, Sony Television, and other properties it owns (including Columbia, Tri-Star, and now MGM Studios). Dell, HP, and now Apple have all thrown their support behind Blu-Ray, and you’ll be able to buy drives not only from Sony but also from a variety of other manufacturers listed above.

HD-DVD has only Toshiba and NEC on its hardware side at present, but it has already received commitments from Paramount (presumably including other Viacom properties like CBS, MTV, and Nickelodeon), NBC Universal, and Time Warner (presumably including not only Warner Bros. but also any titles from cable properties like CNN, TNT, or Cartoon Network). Fox has joined the governing bodies of both competing standards, but joined Blu-Ray most recently and is presumed to prefer Blu-Ray at this point.

In short, many more companies are behind Blu-Ray, but three of the biggest movie and television production companies (Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros.) have committed to HD-DVD.

Apple’s Role

According to CNet News, Apple’s commitment to Blu-Ray means the company will “participate in the promotion and marketing” of the format, and the BDA hopes to “tap [Apple’s] marketing and creative genius” as well.

In all likelihood, Apple’s commitment also means that Apple will eventually replace SuperDrives with Blu-Ray drives, that Mac OS X’s optical media support will include Blu-Ray but not HD-DVD, and that programs from DVD Studio Pro to iDVD may work with Blu-Ray but won’t work with HD-DVD—you’ll need third-party hardware and software for that.

The market will pick one of these two HD formats over the next few years, but Apple’s push for HD on the desktop can’t wait until Adam Smith’s invisible hand points to one kind of disc. At this point, Blu-Ray certainly seems like the safer choice—it’s going to work with more computers and consumer players than HD-DVD, and may well win the battle.

Until it does, though, it’s going to be tense on the video frontier.

Excerpted with permission from the March 14 issue of MDJ, published by MacJournals.com. Copyright 2005, GCSF Incorporated. For a free trial to MDJ, visit www.macjournals.com.

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