99% of the time I'm just your average mild-mannered tech-writer. However, every now and again, when the conditions are just right, I stroll over to my bookcase, reach to the top shelf and gently pull the third book from the left, "Celine Dion: The Magic Behind the Singing Horse." This simple action puts into motion a Rube-Goldbergian series of events which eventually reveals the secret passageway to my lead-lined den. It is there where I don my tinfoil hat and assume the role of my alter-ego, Dr. Conspiracy Theorist.
Oh sure, the realist in me understands that the motivations of large entities are, in truth, driven by the confluence of inertia and ignorance, and not instead by some deep-seated hatred of my hopes and wishes. However, it's an empowering (and self-aggrandizing) exercise to assume that large corporations, governments, and even dictators are all out to screw me, the little guy.
Today, I contemplate the ongoing Blu-ray / HD DVD war, and as I sit in this windowless bunker with only the sound of my Remington striking the ink onto the page to keep me company, I ask the question that seems to be so often overlooked: "Why isn't there consensus on the red portion of the specs?"
It's clear why neither the BDA (Blu-ray Disc Association) nor the DVD Forum (HD DVD) will raise the white flag, capitulate, and end the blue-laser war. In addition to having already invested years of research and development which they hope will lead to lucrative licensing fees, there are also the intangibles that come from working with the beast you know. Dumping your format and adopting that of your competitor is no small chore and despite the fact that we, the media and the consumers, like to pretend that a blue laser is a blue laser – the two formats are quite different.
Having said that, without the extra "Conspiracy Power" of the tinfoil hat, I found little reason why the two governing bodies couldn't come together and peacefully co-exist on something as well-understood as the red laser. With the hat, on the other hand, it came to me – they're trying to kill independent content.
But let's back up for a second.
You see -- there are a couple of crucial pieces of information that you need to know. First, you need to understand that one aspect of both Blu-ray and HD DVD that rarely gets press-coverage is that each has a provision for using red lasers (the same type used in today's DVD players) in conjunction with their advanced codecs. In the case of Blu-ray it's called BD-9 and in the case of HD DVD it's HD DVD-9.
In each case, the concept is simple: it's nearly exactly the same content that's placed on the higher-capacity blue-laser-based discs but instead the content is put on the same DVD media that we've come to love and adore. The thought behind the inclusion of red lasers was two-fold: a) in order to maintain backwards compatibility with current DVDs it had to be there and b) there is a set of content that really doesn't need all the space of the fully-implemented Blu-ray or HD DVD standard. As a result, companies such as Warner Bros., in an effort to lower production costs on a certain subset of their content (e.g. TV Episode compilations), demanded its inclusion.
The second piece of information that you need to understand is that, in many cases, an entire HD movie will actually fit on a standard DVD. Yes, it's true that at 8-9 MBit/second you won't see transparency to the source. However, for an average length film with no "extras" most people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference; they have neither the equipment nor the eyes to do so. In fact, nearly three years ago (a lifetime in terms of development) Terminator 2 was released on a standard DVD using a very similar encoding scheme to those used in both Blu-ray and HD DVD . Since then, both the VC-1 encoding process and H.264 encoding have made tremendous improvements and continue to get more efficient with each passing month.
"So what's the problem?" you ask, "both BD-9 and HD DVD-9 use the same laser, the same media, the same codecs, and the same (well mostly) content protection scheme – why can't you just make one disc that will play in both players?" The answer, as stupid as it seems, is the navigation system. While nearly every aspect of the disc is the same, HD DVD uses the Microsoft-developed iHD while Blu-ray uses a Java-based system. By using two different navigation systems, both parties have excluded the possibility of dual-system HD discs.
"Why would they do this?" Well... Many might argue that it was simply a case of NIH (not invented here) where two stubborn groups were just unwilling to bend -- each thinking they held all the cards. It's only trained conspiracy experts who know the real reason: doing so hurts independent content producers.
Where major studios have the clout, the finances, and the time to release two different versions of the same content using the latest disks, independent producers don't. Doing so means twice as much inventory, twice as many production hassles, etc. Furthermore, it is the independent producers (be they filmmakers or even home enthusiasts) who would have been more likely to utilize the red laser feature. In the case of small production houses, they might already have invested in DVD-burners. In the case of enthusiasts, they might choose to create a disc they know will be compatible with their friend's HD player.
By limiting the usefulness of the red portion of the two specs, the DVD Forum and the BDA can push people towards the discs that make them money and not towards a possible "HD on Red" compromise. Additionally, the studios are able to limit their competition to only those companies which can afford to produce and stock all three versions.
So there you have it – the "real" reason they sabotaged the red laser's usefulness in Blu-ray and HD DVD. Now I've to get out of this room; the tinfoil is making my head sweat and I'm out of saltines and peanut butter.
If you have comments or suggestions for future columns, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.