Toshiba reviewing HD-DVD launch plans

Toshiba Corp. is reviewing the launch schedule for HD-DVD, a next-generation optical disc format for high-definition video, and could delay its U.S. launch until sometime next year, it said on Thursday.

Toshiba is the main backer of the format, which also counts support from NEC Corp., Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. and a number of major content producers. The original plan, announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, was to launch HD-DVD (High-Density DVD) hardware and software in the U.S. and Japan before the end of this year. At the time, three movie studios announced a total of 89 movies that would be available at or near the launch time.

While the Japan launch plans remain on track and Toshiba said it will begin hardware production this year, the U.S. launch is likely to be re-timed.

“We want to optimize the timing for launch of HD-DVD in each market,” said Keisuke Ohmori, a spokesman for Toshiba in Tokyo. “The majority of [partners] want a large-scale launch, not a gradual launch.”

Exact launch plans for HD-DVD have not yet been announced, but the impression given at CES was that players and software would be brought to market gradually in each country. It appears now that the partners want to make more of an impact and also avoid possible consumer confusion during the important year-end shopping season.

Any delay in the launch of HD-DVD comes with risks, as one of its advantages over the competing Blu-ray Disc format is speed to market. Blu-ray Disc is expected to hit the market first in the PlayStation 3 games console, which is not due until some time during the first half of 2006. An earlier launch would give HD-DVD time to build up a user-base before its competitor appears.

When hardware and software for both formats does appear, competition is expected to be fierce. Companies have poured millions of dollars into developing their respective formats and additional millions stand to be made from future licensing fees for compatible products.

The first news of a possible delay came three weeks ago, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Paramount Pictures had scrubbed plans to launch content on HD-DVD this year. The Viacom Inc. unit is now looking at 2006, the newspaper said. It also reported that General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal had decided to cut the number of discs being launched this year from 16 titles to about a dozen.

On Thursday, the Mainichi Shimbun, a major Japanese national daily, reported the U.S. launch of HD-DVD will take place in March next year.

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