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Format war: what is it good for?

In the case of Blu-ray vs HD DVD, not a lot. Unless, that is, you have a vested interest in reducing consumer confidence, spending tech-company cash and wasting early adopters’ hard-earned moolah.

But nothing becomes a largely pointless spat quite like its leaving. At least it ended quickly.

Only a week or two ago my erstwhile colleague Robin Morris was confidently predicting that HD DVD had shot its collective bolt, and Blu-ray was to emerge victorious. Fervent HD DVD fans queued up to accuse Robin of ignorance, bias and worse, but he was right. And prescient.

As early as mid-February, Toshiba pulled the plug on HD DVD and, in effect, gave Blu-ray a clear run at replacing DVD-ROM as the digital-storage and -distribution media of choice. So unlike Betamax users in the 80s - slowly marooned on an island of obsolete hardware - the pain for HD DVD owners will at least be swift. If stinging.

And HD DVD owners have the consolation of knowing that their drives are marginally the better technology (like, er, Betamax).
So what went wrong for Toshiba and HD DVD? To understand the present, Grasshopper, we must look to the past.

The broadcast industry was using Beta video for years after VHS ‘won’ that most bitter of format wars. But the best content was available to punters only on VHS. (In fact, if memory serves me, the best content was available only on massive, top-loading VHS players with repetitive-strain inducing buttons and wired remotes. Hard times.)

And beyond a base level of broadcast quality, normal people are much more interested in a DVD’s content than they are in ‘the best technology’. (By saying ‘normal people’, I’m excluding übergeeks.) By getting the big TV and movie studios to back Blu-ray, Sony backed HD DVD into a corner from which it could not escape. At least, not without a muscle-bound movie star at its side.

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