Rivals up the stakes in battle to be the viewers’ choice

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If the marketing hype is to be believed, TV and movie lovers are about to witness a revolution in digital home entertainment.

Consumer electronics manufacturers, IT vendors and movie companies are lining up to extol the virtues of Blu-ray and HD-DVD, the proclaimed successors of the current DVD.

Although different in specification, both the rival disc formats are set to offer consumers a range of movies that are far superior in picture definition, sound quality and interactivity.

The market favourite Blu-ray disc, backed by seven of the eight leading studios, will be able to store up to 50GB of content, a massive increase on the 5GB capacity available with the existing DVD format.

“It means that movie studios can put the best product together for consumers and give them the best viewing experience possible,” says Ludo Cremers, senior vice-president of marketing and business development at distributor Buena Vista Home Entertainment International.

“This is going to be the Rolls-Royce of all media types. Nothing can deliver the level of picture quality, sound or interactivity that this can,” he says.

In addition to the cost advantages of being able to cram a whole season box-set of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on to one or two discs, Blu-ray will also provide far more interactivity, says John Stanley, UK managing director of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

He says: “There will be menus that can take you directly from the TV programme or movie to websites where you can download new material, such as trailers or games. It gives the studio the chance to give the freshest product to the consumer.”

Technological advances will also improve gaming capabilities, with viewers of the Aladdin cartoon, for example, potentially having the extra option of flying around on a magic carpet in an onscreen game, adds Mr Cremers.

Yet, while high definition discs are set to enrich home entertainment, a war similar to that seen between Betamax and VHS video formats in the 1980s could
hamper uptake.

Mr Stanley says that consumer concerns over the battle between the two formats could be a spoiler for the industry. “We all hope that it will sort itself out, as it will be confusing for the consumer and that is something we need to prevent.”

But according to Forrester Research, Blu-ray supporter Sony has learned from the defeat it suffered during the Betamax war, assembling 170 of the world’s leading consumer electronics, personal computer, recording media, video game and music companies to support the new format.

Forrester believes the killer blow could come when Sony launches its PlayStation3 games console, which will include a Blu-ray drive.

Paul Jackson, principal analyst at Forrester Research, says: “There will be 3m, 5m maybe even 10m of these in homes within a year of launch. There will be significantly more Blu-ray machines out there than HD-DVD can ever hope to meet.”

Buena Vista’s Mr Cremers agrees: “I consider it the Trojan horse that will bring Blu-ray into millions of homes in a matter of months.”

But while speculation over a PS3 launch date continues, HD-DVD advocate Toshiba is trying to steal a march by launching Europe’s first HD-DVD notebook, Qosmio G30, this week.

While the battle rages, Forrester believes consumer uncertainly could delay buying decisions by up to two years, allowing other services, such as video-on-demand and internet video to prosper.

“Let’s not forget, most of us are pretty happy with our current DVD players,” says Mr Jackson. “You can pick up a player for £30 now and the quality doesn’t improve much until you get into the £500 region. It will take a long time before the HD formats can displace that.”

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