Whatever side eventually dominates, the payoff will be a long time coming. The potential market is much more limited than red-laser DVD, says Levitas. Today, she says, the only reason to buy one of the devices is to record HDTV programming. The enterprise storage market is in no big rush, having many other storage options available, and the recent arrival of 8.5-gigabyte dual-layer recordable DVDs could satisfy near-term demands in the consumer PC market. Hollywood may start to release some HDTV movies in a blue-laser format by 2006, but the library will likely to be limited for several years.
Although the HDTV market has been growing at a 50 percent annual clip, according to a recent report by The Home Technology Monitor, only 6 percent of TV owners own a high-definition set. Whats more, the trend is less than universal. HDTV is pretty much limited to Japan and the U.S., says Levitas. The rest of the world is pushing [lower-resolution] digital TV. Even in the United States, many consumers are foregoing HDTV to make the less expensive leap to digital televisions and progressive-scan DVD players. Whereas HDTV offers about two million pixels per picture (vs. 350,000 for conventional television), lower-resolution digital formats such as Standard DTV and Enhanced DTV offer a variety of resolutions in between. Progressive-scan players scan twice the number of horizontal lines as a standard interlaced player, producing a sharper picture. When consumers do upgrade to HDTV, they may not rush out to buy yet another expensive appliance. If you pop a standard DVD into a progressive-scan DVD player and connect it to an HDTV set, the picture looks pretty darn good, says Levitas.
That’s why widespread acceptance of blue-laser DVDs is not likely to come for a long timeand by then, other technologies will probably have arrived to blunt their impact. In ten years, HDTV should be fairly well established. That could spur demand for blue-laser devices, which should approach commodity prices by then. (One problem with blue DVD technology is that no one has come up with a cheap mass production process for the blue lasers, which currently cost about $1,000 a pop.)
In a decade, however, widespread deployment of HDTV video-on-demand services and hard drive video recorders (e.g., TiVo) could slow uptake. “Most people just want to time-shift TV programming, says Levitas. If my cable provider gives me video on demand and a hard-drive recorder, why do I need a blue-laser recorder? If theres a competitive library of on-demand high-def content, do I really need to own a disc anymore? I dont think blue-laser will be as popular as VCRs were or as red-laser DVD is likely to be.
Levitas may underestimate the innate and often illogical human need to hoard. Yet its clear that the media consumers of the next decade will have numerous options. In the meantime, it will likely be the film industry that chooses the blue-laser winner. So far, Warner Brothers has endorsed HD-DVD and Sonys Columbia Tri-Star has picked Blu-Ray, but other studios have remained mum. Whatever the choice, Hollywood is likely to proceed cautiously. Thanks to cheap multifunction drives, the scuffles over DVD recordable formats are history, and sales and rentals of DVD drives, players, and media are exploding. According to IDC, 200 million DVD devices have shipped since 1997, and this year that number should grow by a third. Hollywood doesnt want to kill the golden goose too soon, says Levitas. Right now theyre making a ton of money off of DVD.
Over time, blue-laser could be big, but its not likely to have the impact of todays DVD. Slow HDTV growth, expensive blue-laser production, expanding video-on-demand services, cheaper, bigger, hard-drive recorders, and Hollywoods innate conservatism all indicate that the road to blue DVD success will be a long slog. And that’s a timetable that plays into the hands of the less compatible, but more ambitious Blu-Ray.