Analysts: Blu-ray looms in Apple's future

The competition between the competing next-generation optical disk technologies of Blu-ray and HD DVD has entered a new phase, as optical drive makers start rolling out the first products based on the rival technologies. As products based on these formats begin to arrive in stores, one major question for Mac users is: When will Apple integrate this new technology into its computers?

The question is more than just idle speculation. Apple enjoys a long track record of embracing emerging technologies—think FireWire, Bluetooth, and wireless networking, among others—and incorporating them into its offerings. Also consider that Apple is on the board of directors for the Blu-ray Disc Association, and it’s not hard to envision a future where Macs are sporting Blu-ray-based drives.

As with any future product, Apple is keeping its plans for Blu-ray under wraps. But industry analysts don’t think we'll have long to wait before Apple puts a Blu-ray drive in an Intel-based Mac.

The most likely candidate? The as-yet unreleased machine that will replace the Power Mac as Apple’s professional desktop offering.

“Apple’s past practices favor bringing new optical technologies to professional systems first,” said Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox. “DVD-RAM and DVD-R formats are excellent examples.”

Ross Rubin, director of analysis at market-research firm NPD Group, agrees that Apple will work with the professional machines first. However, noting that Intel-based pro desktops have yet to appear, he predicts Blu-ray drives won’t wind up in Apple systems for a few more months.

“January would be good—the timing for that would work out pretty well,” Rubin said. “It comes down to the introduction cycle, but we would see it in desktops first, no doubt.”

Behind the format feud

Blu-ray and HD DVD are competing optical disc formats aimed at storing large amounts of high-definition video. The competition between the two standards pits some of the biggest companies in the technology industry against one another.

Blu-ray is supported by consumer electronics vendors Sony and Panasonic as well as PC vendors Dell and Apple. HD DVD is backed by Toshiba, NEC, Intel, and Microsoft.

The Apple supported H.264 technology is part of the technical specification for both Blu-ray and the competing HD DVD format that hopes to beat out Blu-ray as the industry standard.

For the winner comes the spoils of being the industry standard and having acceptance from movie studios and supplies—which translates to bigger sales. And since the formats are not compatible the loser could easily drop out of the consumer market, much like what happened to the Betamax video cassette format when it lost out to VHS in the 1980s.

Toshiba began selling two HD DVD players in North America in April, beating rival Blu-ray Disc to market by about two months. Speaking in late May, a Toshiba executive said sales in North America were above 20,000. Samsung began shipping its Blu-ray writer in mid-June and BenQ has said it will ship its Blu-ray writer in August.

The impact on Apple

One drawback of the current format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray for the supporting companies is the confusion it causes in the market. Many people may hold off on buying products sporting either format until a clear winner has been found.

For that reason, Technology Business Research senior analyst Tim Deal believes Apple will shy away from adding a Blu-ray optical drive to any of its consumer Macs. “[The format war] will cause confusion in the market which will ultimately mean slow acceptance of the technologies in the consumer market,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean Apple will avoid adopting Blu-ray until after the smoke clears in the format battle, analysts add. “Apple is an active participant in the Blu-ray consortium, and they didn’t let the last format war between DVD- and DVD+ stop them from moving ahead with the drive,” NPD Group’s Rubin said. “I don’t see them rushing to support both—typically Apple supports one and they support it well.”

Look for Apple to follow the same playbook it used in adding DVD-burning SuperDrives to its hardware lineup: pro-level machines first, followed by consumer offerings. The reason for that strategy, Rubin said, has much to do with minimize the cost of adopting new technologies.

“One reason Apple been able to introduce new technologies at relative low cost has to do with cost reductions," Rubin added. “In DVD writing they were very good at timing—they made a volume purchase play and introduced the drives at a relatively low cost compared to what had been available. I see them taking that approach with Blu-ray.”

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