Out with the old, in with the new DVDs

By John Ostrowski

Just when you thought you might be able to relax and enjoy your movies for a while, you’re going to have to start saving up for the newest video technology.

Soon, newer DVD technology that allows more information to be stored on a disc will be hitting the market. The main piece of the technology, the use of a blue laser with a wavelength around 405 nanometers, instead of using a red laser with a 650 nanometer wavelength (which is what a standard DVD uses), will allow more data to be stored on a disc than current DVDs.

The current generation of single layer DVDs hold 4.7 gigabytes per side. The new technology is being developed primarily by two competing factions, and will hold 15 or 25 GB depending on the format chosen.

On one side are a host of movie studios, Sony, Phillips and Apple, and others, collectively known as the Blu-Ray Disc Association, who are supporting the format known as Blu-Ray that allows for 25 GB of storage per side.

On the other side is the format known as HD DVD. This is being developed by the DVD Forum, which was known as the DVD Consortium in 1995, and is an international organization of companies that use and develop the DVD format. The forum voted in 2003 that the successor to DVDs for HDTVs will be HD DVD. The Blu-Ray format was never submitted to the Forum and was therefore never considered. The HD DVD backers include movie studios, Toshiba, NEC, Microsoft and Intel; Apple is a member of the forum but will not be focusing its efforts on HD DVD. HD DVD will allow for 15 GB of storage per side.

Which of the two formats will become the predominant one is up to consumers. It’s fairly safe to say that one of these two formats will be pushed out of the market by the other one. This sort of thing has, of course, happened before.

When the videocassette was gaining momentum and beginning to make its way into the homes of consumers in the 1970’s, there were two major formats available: Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS. We all know who won that little war, but it’s important to know why. Even though the quality of Betamax was slightly better than that of VHS, it was VHS who won the day and became the format used by all companies. The length of recording time available on VHS was initially higher than Betamax, and rental VCR chain stores carried allowed VHS users to avoid buying a VCR.

The battle of DVD formats could be the sequel to the ever-infamous battle of the videocassette formats. The questions is – and this might already be answered – who will win out here? Analysts are predicting that Sony will actually be on the winning side of this format battle, and that Blu-Ray will become the dominant format.

This is not necessarily so because of the same reasons that VHS won out. Rentals were important in the last format war because it was so damned expensive to buy a player for the videocassettes. Obviously, players for the new DVD formats will be expensive but not anything compared to what it used to be (videocassette players initially cost about a month’s salary, upwards of $3,000). And with double-sided and double-layered discs, the difference between the two in length may not be that substantial. What consumers will be looking for is affordability – I’m sure the majority of the population will wonder why they need to buy a new player at all – ease-of-use, and for the enthusiasts, more bells and whistles.

HD DVD was leading in the bells and whistles and the ease-of-use departments with technology that allowed for better interactivity and legitimate copying of discs. Now Blu-Ray has adopted these features and will be using them in their own format, though this could cost them the support of some movie studios. As time goes on, the two formats may become closer and closer to each other, distinguishable perhaps only by storage size and what companies are behind each format.

And that could be the kicker. At one time the support from movie studios was split, until Paramount decided to support both, giving Blu-Ray the advantage. Blu-Ray also has more support from computer and consumer electronic manufacturers. Forrester Research has predicted that Blu-Ray will come out on top.

So be prepared, everyone, to be ready to switch to yet another format. It seems like the switch was just made to DVDs, and now that everyone’s pretty comfortable with the technology, we’re ready to leap forward even further.

John Ostrowski is a junior in Communications. His column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]