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Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Microsoft turns the tide in battle of the DVD formats

The decision by the software giant may be the decisive factor in settling the fight between Toshiba and Sony

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A show attendee compares the difference between Blu-ray format DVD, left, and regular DVD, right, at the Pioneer booth at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 5.

PHOTO: AP

At first glance, Amir Majidimehr does not look like a game-changer in the battle to develop the next generation of DVD players and discs.

As the vice president for Windows digital media at Microsoft, he neither steers a Hollywood studio nor controls one of the many electronics giants that are betting billions of dollars on one of the two new formats that promise to play high-definition movies and television shows.

Yet when he and his team in Redmond, Washington, decided last September to abandon their neutral stance and to support Toshiba and its HD-DVD standard over the Blu-ray format led by Sony, the unexpected change of heart reverberated through the technology industry.

Suddenly, Toshiba's seemingly quixotic defense of its format had new life. Intel joined Microsoft in backing HD-DVD. Hewlett-Packard withdrew its exclusive support of Blu-ray. This month, another member of the Blu-ray camp, LG Electronics, hedged its bets, too, signing a deal to license Toshiba's technology.

And earlier this month, one of the main reasons underpinning Microsoft's move to shuck its neutrality -- the complexity of producing Blu-ray technology -- led to Sony's acknowledgment that it might delay this spring's scheduled release of its PlayStation 3 game console partly because the needed technology was still being worked out.

The possible delay and the Blu-ray group's loss of its once-commanding lead are not encouraging for Sony in its attempt to revive its electronics group after a series of bungles. PlayStation 3 is crucial to Sony's future, and not only because the latest version of its gaming consoles could generate billions in revenue; the new machines will include disc drives that will turn them into Blu-ray DVD players as well.

"The PlayStation is more than a game system to them; it's one of their attempts to own the digital living room," said Robert Heiblim, a consultant to electronics companies. "Blu-ray is also critically important to get right. They don't want to be weak in an area they feel they can dominate."

NO TRUCE SEEMS NEAR

A decade ago, a prospective death match between competing first-generation DVD players was averted when Sony and Philips agreed to back down and join the Toshiba/Warner Brothers side, in exchange for a share of royalties that all DVD player producers pay to the format's creator. Now, no truce seems near, as neither side wants to settle for a small piece of what could be a big electronics success.

So consumers and retailers may be in for a reprise of the confusing VHS-Betamax showdown of the early 1980s, with Toshiba replacing Matsushita as Sony's adversary. But Sony hopes to have a happier resolution this time. Sony lost the battle two decades ago when its highly regarded Betamax technology was defeated by VHS, a more widely accepted alternative.

Once again, the differences between the two technologies are not huge. And a growing chorus of critics, including some studio chiefs eager to sell new products as quickly as possible, call the Blu-ray format unnecessarily elaborate and expensive.

The first HD-DVD machines from Toshiba and the competing Blu-ray players from Sony, Samsung and the other Blu-ray companies will all play movies with crisper pictures, enhanced sound and a bevy of interactive features like pictures within pictures and links to the Internet. The machines will also play older DVDs.

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