Sony wins the second war of home entertainment
WELL, SONY GOT its own back at last. As every technology watcher will know, the last time there was a major 'format war' Sony - with its technologically superior Betamax - lost the battle with NC's VHS over the rival home video formats. Sony found it was not capable of sustaining the Betamax technology on its own and finally gave in and reluctantly switched to. making VHS equipment.
This time round, Sony - with its Blu-Ray technology - has been slugging it out with Toshiba to set the standard for the new High Definition (HD) DVD format, and it is Toshiba that has withdrawn - defeated from the field of battle.
The first time I saw HD television was in 1990 at the headquarters of Panasonic in Osaka, Japan, and I was stunned by the quality of the image. Compared to normal TV you could see an incredible amount of detail, enough - it seemed - to fully satisfy the level of detail that could reasonably be resolved by the human eye.
I was convinced that it was the format of the future, but I really didn't expect that it would take so long to become reality. Even today, the only method of receiving HD television in the UK is via the Sky satellite platform where there are only a few HD channels dedicated to sports, movies, arts and documentaries, and where the BBC and Channel 4 have nascent channels.
However, the new Freesat platform is promising to have HD capability, and there have been discussions between the broadcasters and Of com about adding some HD channels to the Freeview platform, which will be the main UK broadcast distribution method after digital switchover.
The broadcasters felt that Ofcom should dedicate new bandwidth to HD channels, but Of com has determined that by the reorganisation of existing channels - and improved compression techniques - it should be possible to somehow find space to squeeze in four or five HD channels.
The last time round, the Hollywood studios didn't support either of the home video formats. In fact, they tried everything they could think of to kill off home video machines entirely. They even went so far as to sue Sony, alleging that its Betamax technology was providing the means to enable piracy.
It didn't turn out that way of course and eventually the studios realised that they stood to make much more money out of video and later DVD sales than they make out of movie theatres.
So this time around it was the support of the movie studios - by switching support to Blu-Ray - and Wal-Mart - who announced that they would stop carrying the rival HDTV format DVDs - which finally caused Toshiba to raise the white flag.
In fact, a recent study shows that if the major movie studios were to switch to releasing films simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD and via pay-per-view channels, they could increase their revenues by 16 per cent. That would, however, kill off many cinemas and they are not ready to go there - yet.
It is also interesting to speculate about how long the studios will be able to continue to sell DVDs - whether HD or not. Blu-Ray might not in fact be the magic bullet that they had prayed for.
Many people who surf the internet via a broadband connection no longer rent movies or buy DVDs. They download the films they want to watch illegally - and for free.•