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The Clicker: Remember when format wars were about us?

Peter Rojas
Blu-ray + HD DVDEvery Thursday Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, a weekly column on entertainment and technology:

Laser beams, cryptography, modifiable weapons – we must be talking about war, right? Yup, well… at least a format war, and nothing gets one going in the morning like a good format war.

While the war between the two next-generation disc formats, Blu-ray and HD-DVD rages on and consumers sit in their all-too-familiar paralyzed purchasing state, the time seems right to ponder what these wars and the future of these wars mean to consumers.

After all, it's been an interesting couple of weeks for HD-DVD and Blu-ray. On Friday July 29th, Fox announced that it would be backing Blu-ray. In doing so they would be joining Disney and, of course, Sony in the Blu-ray camp. Thus, the major players are split down the middle with Universal, Warner, and Paramount on the other side in the HD-DVD camp. Then, on August 9th, Blu-ray finally announced its plans for keeping its content secure. As expected, the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) has, like HD-DVD, chosen Advanced Access Content System (AASC). However, BDA will also be adding two additional defenses: BD+ and ROM Mark.

Sounds like a typical format war, right?

This war, however, is different from many others. In the format wars of the past, the victory came to he who could give the customer the most; or, at least that was ostensibly the goal. For instance, Betamax was largely touted to have better video quality. VHS, on the other hand, was quick to deliver longer running tapes. If memory serves me correctly, the presence of porn might have also played an, uh, hand in VHS?s victory (but pornography?s affect on technology decisions is fodder for a whole different column). In any case, the market (more or less) chose its technology.

Likewise, the DVD format wars had the consumer in mind. DVD-RAM, +, -. +-RW, etc ? they all had pros and cons. Don?t get me wrong; patents and licensing fees played a prominent part in the play. However, at the end of the day, the parties involved were careful to frame the debates to appear to have the consumer in mind. For instance, DVD-RAM backers would advertise their durability and their better handling of random access. At the same time DVD-R and DVD+R backers were quick to point out that their technologies were compatible with existing players.

So why is this war different from all other wars? Andrew Setos, president of engineering for the Fox Entertainment Group, put it best when he officially declared that the customer was no longer their main concern saying, ?Our announcement last Friday that we would be, in fact, publishing on Blu-Ray disc was a result of content protection, and no other issues,? Setos went on to say that included in ?no other issues? was the higher cost of Blu-ray disc production. That?s right ? HD-DVD and their use of AACS was not enough for the good people at Fox. They needed, nay, demanded more copy protection ? the cost be damned. Toshiba and their HD-DVD ilk shot back, claiming their copy protection was tough too. Isn?t it great to hear two groups fighting over who can best lock down content?

Perhaps the scariest aspect of Blu-ray?s latest salvo is the use of BD+. Similar in concept to DirecTV?s piracy countermeasures, BD+ is Blu-ray?s method of responding to hacked machines. BD+ allows Blu-ray to both a) change the security system on a device and b) lock out hacked machines.

For instance, let?s assume that a device is hacked (a fair assumption). BD+ would allow Blu-ray to essentially render the hacked devices useless. OK ? that?s a concept we?ve heard before. Key revocation is nothing new.

The difference is that BD+ can also be used to get the disabled machines back up and running (back in a protected state of course). At this point you might be wondering why that?s bad. It?s a fair question. After all, it?s designed to help you. The problem is that it might just be the added comfort Blu-ray needs to pull the trigger and disable the device in the first place.

Conventional wisdom has always been that companies wouldn?t have the chutzpah to actually revoke devices. The outcry would be too great. The collateral damage would be massive. BD+ helps assuage the fears. In theory, BD+ should be able to target only hacked devices (and not vulnerable devices). However, it?s rarely that easy. Any mistaken revocations of valid devices would have consumers up in arms. Furthermore, anyone who has lived through one of DirecTV?s massive card swaps is aware that these measure-countermeasure games only last so long before the countermeasures are exhausted and the game is over (winner: hackers). It?s a temporary solution to a long term ?problem.?

Somewhere along the line technology companies lost sight of who their customers were. They seem to have forgotten who purchases all those players. So worried were they that content companies would license their catalogs to the ?other? company that they forgot who was paying the bills. They forgot who would be buying their products. The result appears to be two companies fighting to offer their customers less and less functionality; two competing technologies, in an effort to distinguish themselves from what were very similar products, have decided to forgo the ?let?s pool our licensing fees and all win? route. Instead they?ve decided to wage a ?I can best capitulate to the whims of the content providers? war.

At best, these capitulations merely raise the cost of development and production of the next generation players. At worst, they represent a usability nightmare.

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