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Switched On: All the President's Discs

Ryan Block, @ryan

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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

"Waswitchedon Post news desk. Karl Burnstein speaking."

"I know all about Microsoft and HD DVD."

"Who is this?"

"Call me… 'Disc Bloat.'"

"Yeah, well, whoever you are, that's yesterday's news. Everyone knows that Microsoft went with HD DVD in order to cause grief for Sony, and especially wanted iHD for interactivity since the equivalent Blu-ray specification is based on Java."

"You're wrong, Burnstein. Microsoft doesn't want HD DVD to win."

"Huh? Then why are they backing it?"

"Follow the money."

"What do you mean?"

"Microsoft wants both Blu-ray and HD DVD to lose. You see, before Microsoft and Intel backed HD DVD, Toshiba was just about the only major consumer hardware brand backing HD DVD. Now, since Microsoft and Intel have hopped on to the HD DVD bandwagon and at least dragged HP part of the way there, HD DVD has become a much more viable option."

"So, like I said, Microsoft wants HD DVD to win."

"No. Microsoft knows that even with its and Intel's support, the standard isn't strong enough to beat Blu-ray in the marketplace per se. However, with them on board, HD DVD is just strong enough so that there's a good chance that neither standard will be able to claim a clear victory..."

"How is that good for Microsoft?"

"Simple. Microsoft really has nothing to gain from either format winning. Just listen to any of Gates' recent interviews and how he talks about discs as a necessary evil until the world is ready for media-free distribution. That said, Microsoft has much to gain from both formats losing. Think back to the format war between DVD-Audio and SACD. Both formats lost and it was a computer company that stepped in to become the new center of the digital music universe.

"Microsoft was a bit late to the game for that one, but it's making a big investment into securing Windows Vista for Hollywood as well as ensuring that Portable Media Centers work with DirecTV set-tops. Microsoft gets to sell DRM software and Windows Mobile licenses so that consumers can take this stuff on the go. All of that is a lot less likely if the content is trapped in a 5-inch round jail, regardless of which camp is the warden.

"Once video is distributed completely digitally, Microsoft and Intel benefit by it being managed through the PC and Microsoft gets to sell its own codecs to optimize quality versus compression. On a 50 GB disc, Sony and others have the luxury of using older, less efficient codecs such as MPEG-2."

"Wow, that sure is in an interesting theory you've got there. How far up Microsoft does it go?"

"All the way to the big man."

"The big man? Ballmer? Gates?"


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at

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