The Clicker: Blu-ray and HD DVD -- let's get a combo player already

Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, an opinion column on entertainment and technology:

There is nothing quite like a format war to get keyboards a'clacking... and why not? We, the media, love a format war. Oh sure -- it screws the consumer: two perfectly good technologies rot away on shelves or, even worse, in R&D labs; countless advertising dollars are wasted; years of use are lost forever. Yes, that's all bad, but look on the bright side: format wars give us a chance to get in touch with that little Dvorak inside us all. They allow pundits and fanboys alike to boldly and without reservation declare winners months, years, or even decades ahead of their impeding victory.

Just this week my colleague and an editor at HDbeat, Ben Drawbaugh, did just that. Ben, armed with the questionable logic of "higher prices attract the customer," pronounced Blu-ray to be the winner. The siren-like call to pick a winner is irresistible, I know. I too have been bitten by the declaration bug in the past.

With that said, today we step back and do something different. Today we offer the unrealistic fanciful suggestion that the two forces join together and end this "war."

I know what you're thinking: "They've tried that." While that might be true, we'll consider for a minute a different type of union. We'll consider a union where we get to where we're eventually going anyway. We just get there years ahead of time.

Allow me to explain.

Despite the fun of picking a camp and sticking with it, we all know how this will actually end. Much like the battle of yore (and by that I mean DVD+ vs. DVD-), this duel will eventually be settled by dual players. Frankly, it makes too much sense not to be. For all the back and forth "we're better than you" rhetoric exchanged between the parties, the two really aren't that different. Both offer the same array of codecs and are driven by very similar power requirements. Essentially (and without intending any slight towards the HD DVD camp), anything an HD DVD player can do, a Blu-ray can do also*.

There are two key differences between the players. The first is the navigation system. This is nothing that a little money can't solve. Diehard proponents can argue the advantages of each player and format until they're Blu blue in the face, but customers frankly couldn't care less. The second difference, the laser pickup, is a tougher problem since the two systems aren't compatible. Blu-ray stores its data 0.1mm from the surface of the disk. HD DVD's data (like DVDs) on the other hand is 0.6mm from the surface. CDs are at yet another depth (1.1mm). However, this isn't a deal-breaker either. Between the different lasers required for CD, DVD, and next-gen (be it HD DVD or BD) content, the boxes will likely require multiple lasers anyway -- and that's only if Ricoh doesn't have something to say about it.

In what could be the turning point in this whole ordeal, Ricoh announced in the beginning of July that they had developed a diffraction plate capable of reading all types of lasers. This is the first step in dual box.

With the end of this war being a fait accompli (we all know it will end up in a stalemate), I hereby suggest the following absurd optimistic plan.

Blu-ray and HD DVD need to get together, find a manufacturer willing to produce a dual box, and then they should both endorse the hell out it. "Huh?" you ask. "Why would they want to do that?" That's simple. Until now we've been under the impression that each camp wants to win at the expense of the other. Sure, that makes sense. But it's actually so much better when they can both just soak the consumer.

If both parties started loudly praising dual players, they could a) both collect licensing fees from a single box (sure to be passed on to the consumer) b) essentially force all players to be dual (lest the player manufacturers risk looking bad). This plan has other benefits. First, it would mean years of selling boxes instead of years of convincing consumers that their flavor is the right flavor of next-gen shiny disks. Second, each gets to capture the whole market instead of just their portion of it.

Yes, there are drawbacks which make this plan, well, unlikely, to say the least. Most notably and most ironically is the PS3 factor. It's ironic in that the PS3 was hailed as the force that was supposed to kick-start the next-gen revolution. Instead it might be the best reason Sony has to drag this thing out to the end of time. Likewise, they're also battling in the title license space and neither wants to give away an advantage there. Yet even considering these obstacles, someone in each camp certainly must realize that the above will eventually happen. The question is simply whether or not the two camps have the foresight to be an active part of it.

* The opposite, however, is not true. In many ways HD DVD is a subset of Blu-ray. Blu-ray adds additional levels of security, but, more importantly, HD DVD utilizes a more stringent subset of VC-1. For example HD DVD has a max GOP length of .6 seconds while Blu-ray can reach 2 seconds (if you stay under 15Mbps otherwise it's 1 second). BD has a bigger buffer and a higher peak. In other words, clips encoded for HD DVD will play on Blu-ray. The opposite can't be said.

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