Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
The Blu-ray Disc Association has positioned Toshiba joining its membership as the epilogue in the company's once pitched battle for high-definition disc domination. It could, however, merely be a new chapter in the broader story of home entertainment as it uses the players not only to fill some product-line gaps but takes advantage of their connectivity to move to a future beyond any disc standard.

Back when it was tending to its fresh format war wounds, Toshiba did not always see this potential. After it exited-- and effectively ended-- the HD DVD market, the March 3, 2008 edition of The Wall Street Journal ran an interview with Toshiba chief executive Atsutoshi Nishida that detailed ambitious plans for avoiding Blu-ray. On the low end, Toshiba would improve DVD playback to seek near-parity with Blu-ray quality at lower cost. That idea was productized in Toshiba's XDE DVD players and televisions. XDE was met with mixed reviews, however, and the plummeting prices of Blu-ray hardware last holiday season cut its viability short.

Flirting with connectivity on the high-end, Nishida noted that it was now possible to bridge PCs and televisions better, and that he wanted to put "even more energy" into video downloading. He may have been considering Toshiba's Qosmio multimedia powerhouse notebooks as an engine for driving high-definition content to the television. However, the long-lingering idea of bridging the PC and television, while indeed becoming easier technologically, still simply isn't worth the effort for most consumers. At CES 2009 as Sony, Sharp, Panasonic, Samsung, LG and Vizio showed off connected televisions, Toshiba didn't announce any broadband content partnerships for its premium Regza line of TVs.
Now that Blu-ray has matured, Toshiba clearly sees short-term benefits to partnering with the Blu-crew. Blu-ray drives have become a natural component upsell option for notebook PCs and players have become a popular item cross-sold for HDTVs. But the spoils of Blu-ray's victory were patent pool payments for the architects of the disc's standard that Toshiba will not share.

Player connectivity is increasingly being used to compete with Blu-ray discs -- many players now offer access to HD movie streaming.

Yet, in trying to blow up Blu-ray, Toshiba left a hole that it may be able to crawl through to escape its less favorable high-definition disc economics. HD DVD's mandatory network connectivity and the BD-Live spec were meant to be used for various features intended to extend the utility disc-based content, but connectivity is increasingly being used to compete with Blu-ray discs -- many players now offer access to HD movie streaming from providers such as Amazon, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, Netflix and Vudu.

Today, these services pose a minimal threat to the Blu-ray rental market, which is still small compared to the tremendous business in movie purchases. But streaming and download services are clearly just the first steps in disc players evolving past their legacy of dumb spindles spinning lots of preprocessed bits off a shiny platter. Future applications will favor those those that have a strong technology hand, and Toshiba claims it has an ace up its sleeve with the Cell processor. If it can muster up the required software and user interface design needed to create a next-generation video entertainment experience, Toshiba could very well use Blu-ray to sneak its vision of connected media distribution right into the mass market.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

[Image courtesy of Flickr user Alaskan Dude]

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Switched On: Toshiba and the Blu-ray Trojan Horse