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The Moving Picture | CES: Pain and Suffering in Las Vegas
Posted Jan 20, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

I've always found the annual Consumer Electronics Show to be a good crystal ball in terms of revealing what to expect for the coming year. The straightforward, logical reason is that stores start making decisions about what they'll be introducing and carrying over the next calendar year based on what they see at CES. Not setting things in motion in January makes it hard for physical products to be on the shelves come the summer and holiday buying seasons.

I've always liked CES because it tends to offer a real-world perspective on early technology I see and hear about from manufacturers. For example, VideoCD authoring was a hot topic back in early 1995 with the companies predicting that the MPEG-1-based technology was going to replace livingroom VHS decks, just as audio CDs had recently done to vinyl. But very few companies that year even showed consumer VideoCD players and still fewer seemed serious about moving volume into the distribution channel. The floor at CES said that VideoCD wasn't going to happen.

A few years later, the reality on the show floor did match the expectations for DVD, with all the major electronics companies prominently promoting new DVD players. You didn't need a crystal ball to see that DVD was primed to take off. CES 2006 offered another glimpse at the future of optical media, this time the high definition-capable replacement for DVD. HD DVD players and Blu-ray players were everywhere, with the earliest one apparently destined to hit the superstores this march for as little as $499.

But that future doesn't look very bright at all.

Oh sure, the pictures are great. Who can argue with the quality of high-definition images shown on the newest high definition-capable, large-screen flat-panel displays? (Indeed, CES has become the most important tradeshow of the year for the plasma, LCD, DLP, etc. sector of the display industry.) Both Blu-ray and HD DVD camps were showing glorious high-definition scenes from favorite Hollywood movies as a way to prove that high definition is something that consumers won't be able to resist.

Many event videographers have probably already begun testing high-definition acquisition using the affordable HDV format in anticipation of that HD future when clients will have both HD disc players and HDTVs. Indeed, the Consumer Electronics Association predicts that more than half of all new TV sales this year will be HDTV-capable sets, thanks to the enormous popularity of those plasmas, LCDs, and DLP TVs. And a majority of cable TV customers now can receive HDTV. HD is here, no doubt, and the consumer is ready.

But this HD disc thing is a mess, and shame on the companies for letting it go this far. And pity the consumer who can't resist this rush of HD players that are about to be force-fed down their throats by a greedy industry. HD DVD and Blu-ray, the competing and incompatible HD disc formats, both have a bunch of companies and Hollywood studios lined up to support one side or the other. That means that some Hollywood movies will almost certainly play on some players and not others. That's old news. What's new is that now we're talking about actual players in the marketplace.

Toshiba has announced that it will ship the first two domestic HD DVD players in March at the surprisingly low starting price of just $499. That price is, indeed, startlingly low for a first-generation player and the reason is clear: HD DVD is losing the battle for industry support. Blu-ray now has much more manufacturer support and far more backing from Hollywood (thanks in no small part to Sony's owning much of Hollywood-I thought that's what anti-trust laws were suppose to prevent), so Toshiba is hoping to parlay being first to market into marketplace dominance. The low price is surely calculated to gain an early foothold. By contrast, the first Blu-ray player will likely arrive in April from Pioneer, but will be a professional studio reference player for about $1,800. Models going for about $1,000 should arrive early this summer from a variety of manufacturers.

Of course, that just means a bunch of consumers will spend money and be stuck with something that, at best, doesn't play half of what they want. And it never should be allowed to reach that point. I don't care about technological superiority. I don't care how many ways licensing fees will need to be divided. I don't care about who's first to market. We've been through this nightmare with VHS and Betamax. We've been through it with DVD-R, DVD+R, and DVD-RAM and it's rather tiresome.

Until sanity prevails over greed, consumers would be better off looking for a normal DVD with built-in up-conversion to HD rather than one of these new HD DVD or Blu-ray new players. Those are becoming increasingly popular, more affordable, and very good-looking. Frankly, the average consumer isn't going to be able to tell the difference and it would serve the manufacturers right.

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