Lately we’ve been looking ahead at new technologies here at the Midwest Test Facility, with two headline-grabbing format wars coming up in the next few years achieving top-of-mind status here at our think tank out on the lonesome, wind-swept prairie. First on the card is the battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD, both worthy competitors in the high definition DVD arena. Second on the marquee is the war between two camps of acquisition, camcorders using solid state memory (known as P2 by its maker, Panasonic) and blue laser optical disc, championed by Sony. Which is better? In both cases, I don’t think that old saying, “May the Best Man Win” will necessarily hold true.

Let’s start by thinking through what it takes to be successful in format wars like this. Does it take superior technology, higher capacity, lower prices, name recognition? How about cool marketing, a vast array of pre-recorded content, more versatile menus? Well, logically, you’d think that all of these factors would come into play. Alas, sometimes all it takes to win a format war is the backing of one major company with deep pockets. Other times, all it takes is the right product at the right time, for the right price. Many times, none of these factors will help. And, as idealistic as I like to be, I think that unfortunately, many times a less-important factor that predicts a product’s winning in the marketplace is its inherent quality.

Case in point: Blu-ray, the optical disc format that encompasses the best quality, the highest technology, the most bullet-proof copy protection and has a lot of companies backing it. And I mean lots of companies, with a laundry list a mile long of the major players: Hitachi, LG, Matsushita, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Thomson, Mitsubishi, Dell and HP. Heck, are there any companies that are NOT supporting it? Well, yes, Toshiba and NEC are in the other camp, supporting HD DVD. But I think Blu-ray’s manufacturing costs, especially at the beginning, will be too high. Entire factories have to be re-built or created from scratch for Blu-ray, while HD DVD can use existing facilities. And, these new HD DVD player/recorders will be backward-compatible with today’s DVDs. Sure, only about 130 minutes of 15 megabit-per-second (mbit/sec.) HD video can be recorded on an HD DVD, but then, that’s spoken in 2004 MPEG2 lingo. Keep in mind that compression technology is making such impressive strides lately that soon you’ll be able to squeeze quite a few more figurative basketballs through that garden hose. Yes, I agree, 15mbit/sec. HD isn’t good enough for you and me today, but those new and improved compression schemes that are surely on their way will change all that.

But wait. Blu-ray, HD DVD… what about neither? It keeps running through my mind that both of these media have one major weakness – they’re physical media! Didn’t Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT professor of “Being Digital” fame,  teach us that bits will someday replace atoms? When is that supposed to happen? I think now is a good time to start. Could HDTV streaming be on the horizon? Rumblings of Microsoft looking into just that are floating around. Video-on-demand (VOD) technology is making great strides, as well. What about bringing the bits into your edit suite or home via wires, or better yet, fiber optics, or better yet, some whiz-bang, ultra-fast wireless technology instead of carrying some kind of disk home and placing it on some kind of hardware player? I think fiber to the home, dubbed with the affectionate acronym FTTH, or fiber to the premises (FTTP), could gain such popularity in the coming years that the battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD as content delivery media might just turn into a moot point.

Now that we have that settled (just kidding), what about that second <i>battle royale</i> that’s brewing, between solid state memory and blue laser discs? Sony and Panasonic are currently locking horns over which will be the next champion acquisition format for camcorders, especially those that go out and grab the news for umpteen-thousands of local and national newscasts broadcast around the world every day. In this corner is Panasonic, claiming their fighter to be superior because it has no moving parts. In that corner over there is Sony, a scrappy counter-puncher armed with the fact that their blue laser disc is cheaper and holds more stuff than a P2 card. But the Panasonic P2 comes back with a right uppercut, claiming that its technology is superior because it has no moving parts. Hmm. I like that, bits, suspended electronically inside a non-moving medium. But then, Sony rallies back, making the point that Panasonic’s workflow requires moving parts when the footage lands on a hard disk back at the station, doesn’t it? Well, not really, if you plug those P2 cards directly into your computer and edit right from them. But still, here’s another example of a product, these P2 cards, that by all logic, is superior, faster, more efficient and better. But it costs too much and that, dear Web-reading friends, could make the difference between success and failure in this particular figurative boxing match, especially in the cut-throat, cut-cost world of local cat-up-a-tree-covering newscasts.

So what to make of all this? Well, the best man (or woman) doesn’t always win. Sometimes the cheapest one does. Sometimes the one who’s right for the times does. Sometimes neither wins, which might be the case of Blu-ray vs. HD DVD. But then, when there’s a lot of competition, I know who always wins: The people who buy this stuff. It’s the free enterprise system at work, where one company leap-frogs the other with new features, and back and forth, all the while undercutting each other with lower and lower prices. That’s why communism never worked – no incentive to win. No competition equals little progress. Even so, I’d like to see survival of the fittest, rather than survival of the most expedient.