Why can’t we just be friends? This is the message coming from HD DVD-backer Toshiba, as the company again hints that unification between HD DVD and Blu-ray may still be the best option for ending the next-generation format war. "We have not given up on a unified format," said Toshiba President Atsutoshi Nishida. "We would like to seek ways for unifying the standards if opportunities arise." Nishida’s comments came at Toshiba’s annual shareholder meeting.
Toshiba has played a largely open hand over the last year, publicly talking up the idea of unification in the face of a Sony-led Blu-ray movement that simply brimmed with confidence in its own format. In August of last year it became clear that no prelaunch unification would be possible, as Toshiba pushed forward with their launch plans and Sony argued that Blu-ray would put the format wars to rest by simply being the best. When all hope was lost, Intel urged the parties to unite, but to no avail.
Half a year later, industry insiders and analysts are worried that 2006 won’t be the year that high-definition optical video takes off, leaving both HD DVD and Blu-ray to engage in a format war whose victory may not amount to much. If neither are picked up in any meaningful way this year, it could end up stretching out financial losses stemming from development for longer than investors had hoped. For Sony, the gamble is especially risky because they have wed the upcoming PlayStation 3 to Blu-ray at a considerable cost. And we have since learned that Toshiba is currently eating roughly US$200 per player sold, too.
David Pogue of the New York Times recently poured cold water on the two formats, telling readers that it’s simply too early to even begin seriously considering buying into either of them. Worse, early reviews of the players seem to all share one common theme: neither standard is ready for primetime. Adding to the confusion, the biggest seller this year will likely be the PlayStation 3, but it won’t be clear how many of those sales will be motivated by the inclusion of Blu-ray. Sony has long argued that Blu-ray would set the PlayStation 3 apart, and it certainly has in terms of cost. However, it remains unclear as to whether or not PS3 sales will translate into Blu-ray movie success. After all, this is ostensibly what it’s all about.
Ultimately, unification may be the only way for both sides to emerge from the format war with their heads still attached to their shoulders. While the prospects for a hybrid player are indeed reassuring from the standpoint of interoperability, unification on the format level could end up solving the problem further up the supply-line, as it were. Rather than deal with confused consumers in a giant rehash of VHS versus Betamax, a unified format could at the very least remove one more barrier to entry.