Switched On: Blu-ray had friends in high def places

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

When Sony included a DVD drive on its PlayStation 2, it was clear which technology was helping sell which product. After just avoiding being a victim of a format war itself, DVD was on its way to enticing consumers with many of the same benefits that had turned the compact disc into a huge success -- high-fidelity, portability, durability and the end of rewinding. The PS2 may well have been a success without DVD, but DVD did not need the PS2.

For the PlayStation 3, the issue was a lot murkier. While US sales of standalone -- that is to say, excluding PS3 -- players for Blu-ray and HD DVD were almost dead even in 2007, Blu-ray titles consistently outsold HD DVD titles. Part of this may have been due to Toshiba's heavy bundling of titles with HD DVD players, but PlayStation 3 owners seem to have bought Blu-ray movies in droves. While Sony consistently promoted Blu-ray's game and movie capacity as a PS3 selling point, the PS3 -- specifically its owners' embrace of Blu-ray movies -- was the major consumer factor in swinging the fate of the high-definition video disc for Blu-ray.

Yet the fight was fought at least as much by corporations as by consumers. Out of the gate, Blu-ray had more studio support and a Murderers' Row of consumer electronics companies -- Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, Philips, LG, Sharp, and Pioneer -- backing the format. Not only did these companies account for the vast majority of DVD player sales in the US, they also accounted for most of the large-screen TVs, paving the way for bundles and other promotions that are sure to accelerate now that there is more security in buying Blu-ray.

For a time, it looked as though the Blu glue would not hold true as HP, LG, and Samsung released HD DVD products despite their initial allegiance to Blu-ray. Microsoft joined HD DVD's feisty campaign with gusto, offering hardware and brilliant evangelism, but without the time or desire to turn the Xbox 360 into a credible subsidized counterbalance to the PlayStation 3.

Regardless, in the end it was studio loyalty that made the difference as Howard Stringer noted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Whereas Universal stayed resolutely exclusive to HD DVD until the end, Paramount initially cast its lot with HD DVD, then switched to dual format, then back to HD DVD in the format's last triumph before being trounced. And Warner, of course, which started strongly aligned with HD DVD, strove for detente with its dual-sided dual format TotalHD format (that never launched) before committing to Blu-ray. The Warner announcement signalled the beginning of the end for HD DVD, culminating in the Wal-Mart death blow.

The format war engaged enthusiasts who were passionate about video, about audio, and about interactivity and control. But the real test for Blu-ray will be fighting not passion, but apathy. Millions of consumers are satisfied with the output of their DVD players on their HDTVs. And when those DVD players break, they can replace them with upconverting players that will make DVDs look even better on HDTVs for a third of the price or less than that of a Blu-ray player.

And if standard definition DVDs are chasing Blu-ray from the past, digital distribution is hurtling toward it from the future. This is true not only of broadband boxes from Microsoft, Apple, and VUDU, but from cable and telco TV service providers investing heavily in infrastructure to thousands of movies on demand, many of them in high definition.

For now, Blu-ray maintains a fidelity advantage over these alternatives, at least for those who own TVs with high enough resolution. But there are still serious questions around whether the it will be able to enjoy the ten-year reign that its predecessor did. In that regard, Blu-ray has not, in fact, truly won the format war, but a committed strategy and stronger partnerships enabled it to win its first and most publicized battle.

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