When is the public not well served by an emerging new standard?


There's a new electronic battleground forming, and it's for the next standard of high-capacity DVDs (digital video discs) and their players.  This one's starting to look like the old Betamax vs VHS wars, and when the smoke clears it may well be that the consumer will be the ultimate loser.


Those who back up the data on large hard drives want a new, higher density optical format.  The new hard drives are so large that even at 4.7 Gb per single layer DVD, many DVDs are needed to completely back up a hard drive.  But to make a new format fly successfully (i.e. be cost-effective), they need more numbers, and DVDs for movie playback remain the number one application.  The movie studios would like to start again with a new standard, too, but for reasons of their own: they'd like another kick at the copy-protection can, in an effort to control consumer dubbing of copyright material.  Not that anybody but the algorithm creators seriously thinks that new copy protection schemes will remain secure for any great length of time!


The canard that's being floated right now is that the consumer will have to purchase a new high-cap DVD player in order to have movie-length HD content for her new DTV.  This is not even approximately true, as we will soon see.  But that's the start of the argument for this new standard.


Two mutually incompatible formats have emerged: Blu-Ray and HD-DVD.  Both replace the infrared laser inside conventional DVD with a blue laser for higher resolution.  Where the regular DVD can store 4.7 Gb/layer, HD-DVD offers 15 Gb/layer and Blu-Ray offers 25 Gb/layer.


HD-DVD naturally enough has some similarity to DVD, but Blu-Ray is essentially a reinvention of the old wheel, and is different enough that the prospect of a dual-mode player that can play either format is away off in the future, if ever.  A player for CD/DVD/HD-DVD/Blu-Ray would need four lasers of four different wavelengths, and focussing at four diverse depths, for starters.  It's much more likely that there will be different players for each of the new formats, and different copies of software (movies) available until a winner shakes out, followed by rapid abandonment of the losing format and the poor unfortunates that have already bought into it.  Hey, that's why it's called the "bleeding edge!"


The irony is that this is not even remotely necessary for consumers.  Present DVDs are encoded with MPEG-2; a simple upgrade to a more efficient codec such as MPEG-4 would allow movie-length HD DVDs without any change in players except a relatively simple programming upgrade.

But can the equipment manufacturers be made to see it that way?


We've already seen what happens when the manufacturers can't agree on a common standard:  have you purchased memory for your digital camera or PDA lately?  There must be at least six different types of memory cartridge, and several sub-types.  Is this necessary?  Is it in the public's interest that so many different form factors have become available for what is essentially the same thing? We have compact flash (types I and II), secure data (SD) and mini SD, multimedia card (MMC), memory stick, memory stick Pro and memory stick Duo, smart media, and XD picture card.  All because manufacturers don't want to pay royalties for someone else's design, and they all want to drive the bus!


Consumer backlash seems to be the last hope: for every twenty or so formats that the manufacturers devise, maybe one survives the first year or two.  Consumers, faced with too many choices, often opt to do nothing, and the new format dies on the vine.  Lest we forget: elcaset, R-DAT, Selectavision videodisc, laserdisc, minidisk, quadraphonic (in QS, SQ, and CD-4 flavours).  Soon to join them (maybe): SACD and DVD-audio.


In order to cheerfully accept change, consumers need a clear choice and an obvious improvement over the status quo, at the very least.  Trying to tell consumers that they need to replace their entire DVD library and adopt a dubious new technology isn't likely to be a hit, even with so-called "early adopters," especially if there is no backward compatibility.