Burning Questions: High-def players won't copy

Imagine Olympic skaters lined up at the starting line, but the ice ahead of them isn't ready for the race -- not a pretty sight. Yet backers of Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD, the two high-definition optical disc formats poised to succeed DVD, are in a similar situation. And consumers are in even worse shape. If they want to enjoy any of the cool, futuristic copying and sharing features that the next-generation formats were expected to support, they still have to wait.

Vendors have been chomping at the bit to release players for prerecorded high-definition content in both formats. But they've been forced to change their product launch plans because of delays in finalizing the content protection specification that both formats will use -- and which neither format's proponents control.

Welcome to the world of next-generation DVD. PR wars, misinformation (no, these players won't track what you're watching via an Internet connection), and repeated delays (some in the industry recall when AACS was supposed to be finished by December 2004) have created a messy state of affairs that's only going to get more complicated when products arrive this spring.

AACS: The interim solution

After the apparent ease with which the Content Scrambling System copy protection on standard-definition DVD was broken years back, it's not at all surprising that Hollywood and the technology community would want to take their time to work out the details on the Advanced Access Content System and get it right from the get-go.

However, some of those details just weren't ready in time for consumer electronic companies' product release schedules. In fact, Toshiba -- which later this month expects its first HD-DVD players to be the first next-generation products on store shelves -- was manufacturing the players before the interim AACS spec was reached. (The company expected to add whatever updates were necessary via firmware before the products shipped.)

To accommodate Toshiba and other companies that wanted to start shipping their high-def products, the AACS Licensing Association came up with a somewhat bizarre solution: It released an interim spec that enables Hollywood studios to securely encode and distribute their content and supports playback of that content on players.But the interim version of AACS has limitations, most conspicuously the lack of support for managed copy. "Managed copy" is industry jargon for the technology that lets content providers offer legal free or fee-based ways for you to move content around on a home server, make a physical copy of content for backup purposes, or transfer it to another device such as a portable media player.

"A player that's licensed under the interim agreement will not be able to do managed copy," states Richard Doherty, spokesperson for the AACS Licensing Association. Although Doherty declined to go into detail about the outstanding issues, he did say that they concern how managed copy will be implemented (and what it will, and will not, allow), and not the actual technology. Technologically speaking, the spec is done, which means it is plausible that "a manufacturer can implement managed copy [but not turn it on], and then enable it in any number of ways down the road," says Doherty.

However, copy support won't be forthcoming for the first round of players. Neither Toshiba's US$499 HD-A1 nor its US$799 HD-XA1 are firmware upgradeable to support managed copy -- in spite of the fact that these units have front-mounted USB ports for some undefined future expansion. Ditto for Pioneer's US$1800 Elite BDP-HD1 and Samsung's US$1000 BD-1000, due out in June and May, respectively.

No problem with media

Strangely enough, the interim AACS spec won't cripple first-generation prerecorded HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc media. Says Doherty: "It is our intent to avoid any kind of legacy problem with discs. There are no issues on the content side. Prepping a disc to offer managed copy is ready to go now."

What will consumers experience when they play a disc that offers managed copy options in a device that doesn't support them? Those options could be grayed out or hidden when the disc is placed into the device.

"One of the challenges in AACS is in coming to an agreement among all of the participating bodies and organizations," admits Doherty. "We expect AACS to carry an obligation for managed copy under the final agreement. But we are still working out the policies for that."

The AACS Licensing Association has a lot of heavy hitters to please: Its founding members are IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, The Walt Disney Company, and Warner Brothers.

The "obligation" Doherty mentions refers to ongoing statements by HD-DVD backers that the format would require managed copy features, implying at least some minimum support for consumer copying. The Blu-ray Disc Association has indicated that its format will support managed copy as well.

In both formats, the basic managed copy policies will be handled by AACS. Blu-ray Disc has two added layers of copy protection -- BD Plus and ROM Mark -- but neither should directly affect the format's ability to support managed copy, says Blu-ray Disc Association representative Andy Parsons.

Early buyers beware

The AACS Licensing Association's logic in releasing the interim license is simple. "We expected the first early players to be basic players," explains Doherty. "And we didn't want to slow down the roll out of those devices."

But since the first players won't support managed copying, the full promise of the AACS security standard won't be available to early adopters who buy one of these devices to complement a high-definition TV.

Perhaps none of this will matter to some prospective buyers of high-def players. If you've never contemplated moving content via USB to a portable device or using your home network to transfer a movie to a server so you can play it on any networked set in your home, the lack of managed content support probably won't affect you.

More to the point, while both of the Toshiba players as well as the Pioneer will have Ethernet ports, the networking in these devices wouldn't allow you to transfer content over a network even if the copy protection technology did. The Toshiba unit's Ethernet is designed for accessing the Internet to download content, while the Pioneer's network support is strictly for streaming content from a home network to the device, not vice-versa.

The player's the thing

Maybe the simple ability to play high-def content will be enough -- especially if you own a huge display, or plan to. I saw a preview of high-definition content during Toshiba's recent HD-DVD road show stop in California, which highlighted the HD-XA1. The content certainly looked impressive -- particularly on the US$5000 72-inch Toshiba DLP rear-projection set used in the demonstration.

No full-length movies were available, but we saw trailers for Universal's King Kong and Warner's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among others; the images, not surprisingly, had depth and looked quite vibrant. I was even more impressed by the non-studio-supplied example of high-def MPEG-4-AVC-encoded content: Its image quality was distinctly sharper and more detailed than that of standard-definition content.Tina Tuccillo, vice president of marketing communications for Toshiba, says the company expects to sell 30,000 HD-DVD players in the first three months after they ship. For comparison, note that by the end of 1997 (the year that DVD first appeared) an estimated 200,000 players were sold -- but there wasn't a format war back then.

If you're ready to take the plunge into the coming world of prepackaged high-definition entertainment, you'll be able to do so soon. "By the end of March, we will have both hardware and software on the streets and ready to go," promises HD-DVD promotion group representative Mark Knox.

Just don't count on buying the Star Wars movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and all three installments of The Terminator to play on either an HD-DVD or a Blu-ray device. Thanks to the ongoing format war, these blockbusters will not all be available in either of the two formats.

Next month: A closer look at the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc specs.

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