Just like VHS and BetaMax, there was once a format war between the winning Blu-ray format and the now-defunct HD-DVD format. The war between these two formats was over in a mere two years, so what happened?
Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD: The Technicalities
Both Blu-ray and HD-DVD technologies were developed independently, although both aimed at the same goal: storing content for the new HD generation of televisions. From a user’s point of view, both formats are pretty similar. You put a disc into a player, and then an HD movie plays.
Under the hood, numerous differences exist, most of which aren’t big enough to warrant discussion. For example, the Dolby Digital audio bitrate for Blu-ray is 640 Kbps, while HD-DVD’s number is 504 Kbps. It’s a measurable difference but means little to nothing when watching content.
The biggest difference between HD-DVDs and Blu-ray discs is the amount of data stored on each layer. HD-DVDs can store 15GB of data, whereas Blu-ray discs can store 25GB of data. That’s a significant difference, and coupled with a notably lower data transfer rate for HD-DVDs, it meant that better-quality video and more additional content were possible on Blu-ray compared to HD-DVD.
HD-DVD was developed by the DVD Forum as a direct successor to DVDs, so it builds on the same technology. This meant that relatively minor re-tooling would be needed to shift from DVD to HD-DVD production. On the other hand, HD-DVDs would have the same materials and level of scratch resistance as existing DVDs. Blu-rays offered higher levels of durability but would be more expensive to make.
Toshiba was the main manufacturer putting its money on HD-DVD, though major optical disc players such as HP, NEC, Canon, and Ricoh also supported the technology. On the Blu-ray side, Sony was the main proponent, which would prove to be the major deciding factor regarding who would win.
Sony Was Pivotal
Sony was the major developer and proponent of Blu-ray. Its position as a movie studio and general entertainment giant helped put the nail in the HD-DVD coffin much more effectively than any technical differences between the formats.
Early in the format war, Sony convinced several studios to join its own studio division supporting Blu-ray. This included Disney, Miramax, Touchstone, Warner, Paramount, and Lions Gate. On the HD-DVD side were Universal Studios, Paramount, Warner, The Weinstein Company, Dreamworks, and New Line Cinema. Some companies hedged their bets by supporting both formats.
Sony knew that studios were concerned about piracy, and the additional focus on Blu-ray copy protection is likely why it received strong studio support. However, Sony’s Playstation division would allow it to perform a pincer attack from two different major entertainment markets.
Enter the PlayStation 3
Just as with the PlayStation 2, which doubled as a DVD player, Sony included a built-in Blu-ray player with every PlayStation 3 sold. While this undoubtedly contributed to the substantial launch price of the PlayStation 3 (which was still sold at a loss even then), it also meant putting Blu-ray players in millions of homes.
Once the player hardware is nestled under TVs, it makes it much more likely that people will buy movies in your format. In contrast, the Xbox 360 shipped with a DVD drive and offered an HD -DVD drive as an optional external add-on. This opt-in approach made it less likely that customers would go out of their way to buy an add-on drive, especially for a format in contention.
There’s no way to say how much of an impact this had on HD-DVD’s demise, but the Xbox 360 had a sizable head-start over the PS3, and Microsoft sold a huge number of them in the early stages of that console generation. It’s conceivable that having that many HD-DVD drives in homes would have pushed HD-DVD purchases significantly.
How the Format War Ended
On February 19, 2008, Toshiba effectively threw in the towel when it announced that the development, manufacturing, and marketing of HD-DVD would stop. Universal Studios, an exclusive supporter of HD-DVD, announced on the very same day that their content would be coming to Blu-ray.
All the supporting infrastructure and management structure for HD-DVD was soon dissolved and decommissioned. With Blu-ray the only format on offer, it became safe for consumers to invest in a player and discs. Anyone stuck with an HD-DVD player was an unfortunate casualty of this short conflict.
Did Blu-ray Really Win?
While Blu-ray is the only current and possibly last physical optical media for HD content, it may have been a pyrrhic victory. It didn’t take long after the end of the format war for online streaming to rapidly eat into the market that Blu-ray otherwise would have had to itself. As bandwidth and more efficient video codecs have become faster and cheaper, the convenience of streaming or digital film purchases has taken its toll.
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have Ultra HD Blu-ray drives, ensuring a strong install base for the medium, and 4K televisions are set to become the most common resolution sooner rather than later. Still, the sheer convenience of internet-based services is hard to beat. Even if streaming is technically inferior when it comes to sheer quality, it seems that Blu-ray is holding on thanks to cinephiles and collectors. At the same time, paradoxically, the original DVD format remains the physical format of choice for millions of people worldwide.