The HD format war is over and Blu-ray won. Mark my words. Over. Done. Finished. May 1st, 2007 was the day of the deciding battle, it was waged far and long into the night, and in the morning a clear winner emerged. Of course, we the lowly public are only just now arriving in the position to make such a judgment, but the ‘masters of the universe’ so to speak, the corporate executives in the position to make the real influential decisions, they knew right away. HD-DVD was dead and Blu-ray is the format that will dominate the foreseeable future. Oh, sure there are more battles to be waged, but like Gettysburg or Normandy before it, the deciding battle has already been fought, and in the aftermath, while the pawns reveled in their triumph, the true generals in the war knew the truth: If they knew what would come of this, they would not be cheering.
Alright, enough pretension – what the hell am I talking about? The battlefield was digg.com. And the pawns in play were the users, the community, the ‘diggnation’. What was all the fuss about? Earlier in the day, a story broke that HD-DVD encryption – the DRM that protected the content from being copied – had been cracked. (Well, sort of. The copy protection on HD-DVD is a little more robust than that. One of the encryption keys had been obtained. Despite the fact that there are many encryption keys, designed to counter this very thing, it doesn’t seem to have made any difference what-so-ever.) Not only that, but the heads of Digg.com received a cease and desist letter – remove the key or face legal action. Now, because of the DMCA, facilitating the circumvention of encryption is illegal in the United States, so Digg.com did the only reasonable thing – they complied. Now that could have been the end of the story – one key broken, no big deal. Just move onto the next one, HD-DVD remains secure and the format wars continue. But the users of Digg.com didn’t take too kindly to the MPAA or even the Admins of Digg telling them what they can and cannot post (kind of ironic, since Digg restricts submissions from certain domains anyway). They viewed it as a freedom of speech issue – they consider themselves journalists in the most righteous sense and no one is going to tell them that a series of letters and numbers can’t be reproduced. That and the fact that the tech savvy crowd is almost unanimously disgusted by DRM and the efforts of the MPAA to fight piracy I’m sure played a part too. Eventually, Digg reversed its decision and the users flooded the site with posts of the decryption key. This event was significant enough to get picked up in the mainstream press, and thus news of HD-DVD’s being cracked spread across the globe.
But what the Diggnation didn’t realize is that they were sealing the fate of HD movies for the foreseeable future – a fate locked to the core in DRM (Digital Rights Management) – perhaps the most powerful type ever unleashed on the general consumer. Yes, Blu-ray has some really powerful and nasty DRM, encryption and other restrictive ‘features’ – enough to cause even the most casual home movie viewer aggravation, and certainly be the bane of the happy-go-lucky tech-savvy ‘net pirate.
But why is this little scuffle over DRM, something most people have never heard of, so important as to determine the winner of this format war? To understand why, you have to see things through the eyes of the movie studios and their organizing group (or cartel front, depending on who you ask), the MPAA. To them, DVD has been a disaster in failed DRM and a hard lesson in digital piracy. The weak encryption on DVDs was cracked very early in its life cycle, and as a result there is a thriving black market piracy ring that is far more damaging than VCRs ever were since pirates can send perfect digital copies around the world at virtually no cost, and burn copies for pennies. A relatively small problem mostly contained within the tech-savvy crowd in the US – but in china, it’s harder to find legitimate copies than bootlegs. So the studios have one last chance to get it right-and damned if they’re not determined to ensure that last frontier in home video isn’t as profitable as possible. Most people don’t know it, but to them, DRM is the most important factor in the format wars, and indeed it proved to be the deciding factor. They believe that if they can protect HD-content from ever being leaked, they can stop the pirates and squash any black market. Their goal is to keep as much HD material secured as possible and their actions have reflected this policy. For example, why is there no HD content on iTunes? In fact why is their no HD downloads of any kind through any of the many existing services out there? As far as I know, the lone exception is the Xbox Live Marketplace. But as a video vendor, they pale in comparison to iTunes, so why does Microsoft offer HD movie downloads and Apple not? After all, this has been a long standing criticism of video in iTunes, and indeed of AppleTV. So what’s going on? Well, Microsoft has shown a strong support of DRM over the years, and Apple has made their aversion to it equally clear. There are many, many other services out there dying to provide HD content over the internet and they have been unable to do so due to the studios’ holding such tight reigns over their HD material. So when the digg-revolt occurred, the powers-that-be decided that HD-DVD was a compromised format. Blu-ray was already outselling HD-DVD, so this was simply the last straw.
So how do I know that? Well, in the ensuing months, a number of things have happened that signal the death knell of HD-DVD. First, in a last ditch effort, the HD-DVD camp paid Paramount $150 million dollars to drop support for Blu-ray and only release HD-DVDs instead. And now they have decided to offer a deal where if you buy a player, you get 5 HD-DVDs free. These are clearly desperate moves that will only serve to prolong the inevitable. And try finding an HD-DVD drive for your computer. As far as I can tell, the only way to get one is to buy an HP computer (HP is one of the supporters of HD-DVD) or buy the Xbox 360 add-on drive.
This is all made the more interesting because HD-DVD had the head start: It was a small step up in technology from DVD, unlike Blu-ray, thus discs and players are a lot cheaper and more affordable, it was adopted early by Wal-Mart (for these reasons to be sure), It has less draconian DRM, and Sony had locked out pornography companies from using Blu-ray. This final point, though seemingly trivial, has been cited as one of the most, if not the most important factor in the format wars, since many agree the outcome of the last format war, Sony’s Betamax vs VHS, was heavily influenced by the porn industry’s embracing of VHS over Beta (as well as being cheaper). After the Wal-Mart and the porn news broke and the PS3’s very weak launch, most people were calling the war in HD-DVD’s favor . It was hard to understand why Sony would make the same mistake twice, so imagine people’s surprise when the first adult Blu-ray’s discs were announced. Turns out this little victory for HD-DVD was very short-lived because Sony isn’t stupid after all. Not that it matters, really. The world has changed, and neither DVD nor the Internet existed back then, so I seriously doubt that this will be an influential factor in the war.
When the format war began, I personally was rooting for HD-DVD. It did the same job as Blu-ray, but was a lot cheaper and had less crippling DRM, and when the first must-have titles like the Matrix Trilogy came out on HD-DVD, I almost committed to the format. Blu-ray’s hefty dose of DRM scared me then as it does now, and was the main factor for my rooting for HD-DVD over Blu-ray, and I’m sure it was the same deciding factor for many of the studios, albeit for the opposite reason. So I suppose you could say that the format war was truly decided before any discs were ever made, back when the formats were being drafted.
As far as DRM is concerned, I’m against it on principle. Consumers shouldn’t have to jump through hoops just to watch a movie or listen to music. I shouldn’t be treated as a criminal when I buy content (Pirated content is ironically always DRM-free, it’s the legal content that treats you like a thief). DRM usually ends up being a hassle for people who paid for content legally, and a minor nuisance to the pirates, as it is only a matter of time before it is circumvented. I as a consumer should be able to watch and listen to content I’ve paid for on any device I own, and not solely on the terms demanded on high by some overly-controlling mega-corp. However, that’s not to say I endorse piracy. On the contrary, I believe strongly that content producers should not only be able to make a living from their art, but that if their work is a huge success, they should reap the huge rewards.
We’ve already seen that stronger DRM bites back at its users, so as Blu-ray divides and conquers, we will enter an era where we will have a lot of very disgruntled consumers who find that DRM often doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. For example, did you know that even your HD display has to be compatible with DRM standards? Maybe you did, but does the average consumer? The average consumer doesn’t even know that DVDs aren’t in High-Definition. When Sony starts to tell consumers that their kids can’t watch the latest Disney movie until they upgrade their Blu-ray player’s firmware, they’re going to get a lot of blank stares and angry customers. This, combined with the end of analog broadcast TV in 2009, is the making of a consumer powder-keg that’s set to blow in a couple years when the average person will probably start to think that HD isn’t worth all the aggravation.
Since Blu-ray’s starting to look like the clear winner, I thought I might buy a Blu-ray drive for my computer so I can start enjoying some of the movies I’m dying to see in HD. Here’s the cheapest one I could find. Only a little over 250, not too bad. I’m willing to go for that, especially since I can rent discs instead of having to buy everything I want to see. Okay, so let’s just…wait…huh? wtf? WTF!?!?!? Turns out you have to have an HDCP compliant monitor…and video card…and motherboard – none of which I have, despite my very expensive rig. AND you have to be running Windows Vista. That’s the movie industry’s big FUCK YOU to people running Macs and Linux. It gets worse, the playback software that’s included only plays in stereo. They actually demand that you then pay another 100 bucks more for PowerDVD Ultra. Can you believe it? Imagine if you bought a DVD player, and then when you hooked it up to your TV, the software informed you that it’s holding half the features hostage until you pay the ransom. UNBELIEVABLE. And even if your computer does meet all these requirements, you’ll be lucky if you don’t still have to update some firmware. This all seems completely ridiculous, I’ve been watching high-def trailers on my computer for a long time now. My computer is perfectly capable of playing back HD video. I wanted to legally buy and watch Blu-ray movies, yet all this bullshit just makes me realize how much easier it would be to just download them.
HD-DVD may be down, but he’s not out. He’s goin’ down fightin’!!! As of today, (Friday, November 2nd 2007) Wal-Mart will begin offering a $100 dollar HD-DVD player. Looks like HD-DVD still has a chance yet. If he can undercut Blu-ray this xmas, he just might have a shot at winning this thing. Looks like the war might not be over after all. Stay tuned…