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Hewlett-Packard, the second-biggest US computer maker, said on Friday it would abandon its exclusive support for Sony’s Blu-Ray next-generation format for digital video discs and move to embrace Toshiba’s competing HD-DVD format as well.

The decision is the latest sign of a looming “format war” between the competing standards for a new generation of digital video players that can record high-definition films and video games. Blu-Ray and HD-DVD-compatible devices are expected to hit stores worldwide early next year.

Friday’s move represents the biggest victory for HD-DVD since Microsoft, the world’s biggest sofware company, and Intel, the world’s biggest computer chip maker, threw their support behind that format in September.

HP said its decision to support both standards would put the company in a “better position to assess true development costs and, ultimately, provide the best and most affordable solution for consumers”.

HP warned in October that a failure by the Blu-Ray Disc Association (BDA), the consortium behind the Blu-Ray standard, to adopt two technologies tied to HD-DVD could prompt the company to change allegiances.

The BDA said last month that it would support one of the technologies, which allows consumers to make legal copies of high-definition movies. However, it remained silent on the other technology, an interactivity feature that will be integrated into Microsoft’s new Vista operating system.

“This integration will reduce development costs and provide a more affordable solution for consumers,” HP said. “In addition, HD-DVD provides a rich, cost-competitive solution for the consumer and is easier to manufacture.”

Entertainment industry executives are eager to avoid a repeat of the VHS-Betamax format wars of the 1980s, which created a divided market for video recorders and hit the profits of companies that invested in the vanquished Betamax format.

Blu-Ray had long been seen as the front-runner in the battle over the next geneation DVD format, thanks to the strong support of Hollywood. But HD-DVD has gained ground in recent months thanks to the backing of Microsoft and Intel.

Both camps are expected to begin the widespread rollout of next-generation high definition digital video recorders early next year. Shares in Hewlett Packard fell 1 per cent to $28.92 in New York.

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