HD-DVD comes out fighting, launch in 2005

The HD-DVD (High Definition/High Density-DVD) next-generation optical disc format got a boost Monday with the announcement by Toshiba and NEC that they plan to launch compatible products next year and with word that a major Japanese content producer is backing the format.

Toshiba and NEC announced their plans to launch HD-DVD hardware during the 2005 calendar year as a three-day event aimed at promoting the standard to Japan's entertainment industry got under way in Tokyo. Toshiba plans a home player and possibly a recorder while NEC said it plans a drive for use with computers.

At the same event Pony Canyon, Japan's largest distributor of DVDs, said it plans to release content in the format and named the first eight discs it plans to produce.

The promotional effort aims to push HD-DVD toward victory in what has been until now a one-sided race to become the format of choice for high-definition video content.

To date demonstrations of HD-DVD have been largely confined to prototype models on show at technical seminars and some events. In contrast recorders based on the competing Blu-ray Disc are already on the market. Sony commercialized the first in 2003 and Panasonic will put the second on sale in Japan this weekend.

The HD-DVD group, which is mainly led by Toshiba and NEC, is using the technological differences between the two formats as the basis for its argument that HD-DVD makes more sense than Blu-ray Disc and hopes the entertainment industry, both in Japan and elsewhere, is listening.

The industry is a tough crowd to please, said Toshio Yajima, a senior executive advisor to Microsoft's Japan unit. "They like to say no," he said.

But both sides in the format battle know that without the support of movie studios and entertainment companies their respective formats could be dead in the water.

Toshiba and NEC are appealing to the collective wallets of the industry.

Because HD-DVD discs are almost physically identical to current DVD discs, the same production lines can be used to produce both discs, thus saving the expense of building new factories, said Masato Ootsuka, senior manager of the engineering development department at optical disc maker Memory-Tech.

A pilot line at the company's factory in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, can be switched between DVD and HD-DVD in five minutes and production of a dual-layer 30G-byte HD-DVD disc takes 3.5 seconds, compared to 3 seconds for a DVD, Ootsuka said. Yields are also above 90 percent.

Hardware will also be cheaper to make because its closeness to DVD means it is less complicated, the companies say.

While Toshiba and NEC wouldn't comment Monday on the likely price of their first products, Hisashi Yamada, chief fellow of technology at Toshiba and also a chairman at the DVD Forum, said at an event in Los Angeles earlier this year that he expects the first players to cost around ¥100,000 (US$910), according to the company. Panasonic's Blu-ray Disc recorder due on sale this week will cost around ¥300,000.

The group is also pushing the message that, while HD-DVD offers a lower data storage capacity than Blu-ray Disc, HD-DVD can store more high-definition programming. That's because it uses the MPEG4.AVC and VC9 codecs, the former based on the H.264 codec and the latter on Microsoft's Windows Media 9 codec.

HD-DVD's codecs are more efficient than the MPEG2 system used in Blu-ray Disc can reduce the file size by two thirds, said Microsoft's Yajima. That means one 15G-byte disc can hold 180 minutes of high-definition video. A 29G-byte Blu-ray Disc can hold around 132 minutes of video, which is not long enough for around 5 percent of movies, he said.

One stumbling block to widespread support is the lack of a strong copy-protection and digital rights management system. However this work is underway and details are expected to be published soon, Yajima said.

The problem of illegal copying was highlighted in a recent report by the Motion Picture Association of America that said an average of 24 percent of Internet users in eight major countries have downloaded a movie and estimated losses to the movie industry from such piracy run into billions of dollars.

With the promotional event in Tokyo this week and Panasonic's imminent launch of its Blu-ray Disc player it appears the long-anticipated battle between the two sides is now beginning.

The Blu-ray Disc camp is targeting recording of high-definition programs, but this could hamper it in markets where high-definition programming has yet to take off. The HD-DVD team is seeking victory through the backing of entertainment companies for prerecorded content and hoping users are more interested in watching such content than time-shifting television.

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Martyn Williams

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