Blu-ray vs HD-DVD – the war of the blue laser optical disks

Shuji Nakamura’s blue laser diode exactly fit requirements for next generation DVDs: accurate, reliable, small and affordable both for manufacturing and running costs. It was a brilliant invention, and it offered the opportunity for a single, industry wide high-definition optical storage standard to be agreed upon by the turn of the new millennium.

Of course, that is not what happened. Instead, chasing a supposed multi-billion dollar prize, two opposing factions backed mutually incompatible blue laser optical storage solutions: Blu-ray and HD-DVD. There followed years of deadlock which, though Blu-ray finally came out on top, arguably nobody really won, least of all the consumer.

At the time specifications for the technologies were first disclosed, a comparison with the current DVD format looked as follows:

Format Current generation Next generation
DVD playback 4.7GB (single-layer disc);

650nm red laser;

MPEG-2 video compression.

Blu-ray disc;

27GB (single-layer disc);

up to 50GB (dual-layer disc);

405nm blue-violet laser;

MPEG-2 video;

incompatible with DVD format.

DVD recordable 4.7GB (single-layer disc);

DVD-R (write-once);

DVD-RAM (rewritable);

DVD-RW (rewritable);

DVD+RW (rewritable);

650nm red laser;

MPEG-2 video compression.

HD-DVD disc;

9GB (dual layer disc);

405nm blue-violet laser;

MPEG-4 or improved MPEG-2

with extensive pre- and post-processing;

compatible with DVD format.

Initial indications were that DVD Forum member Warner Bros. and other movie content production companies were firmly in the HD-DVD camp, since it would allow Hollywood studios to repurpose their content one more time without having first to incur high investment costs in transitioning to brand-new replication equipment. In effect, the similarity between HD-DVD and the then current DVD manufacturing processes made it much less expensive to adapt production lines for producing HD-DVDs than it would be to adapt for BD production.

This initial support from Hollywood, likely the quickest to market vendors of the new technology, gave considerable weight to the HD-DVD argument, and quite possibly proved the single most significant factor in precipitating the debacle that followed. Despite most technology manufacturers support for Blu-ray from the off, the DVD Forum could easily justify its decision to support HD-DVD technology on the grounds of production costs alone.

Furthermore, as late as 2005 Intel and Microsoft both announced their backing for HD-DVD, as several of their developments (including Microsoft’s HDi technology) were vested in HD-DVD’s future. Horns seemed locked immovably, despite long and vigorous negotiations.

Some hopefuls suggested that it might be possible for the HD-DVD and BD technologies to co-exist. HD-DVD, they suggested, could be positioned as a playback format for pre-recorded HD-DVD movies. BD, on the other hand, could provide a recording format for real-time interlaced TV programs, including HDTV programming. Others tried to combine the technologies. LG and Samsung released dual HD-DVD/BD drives. Some computer manufacturers, including HP and Acer, sold PCs with combination HD-DVD/BD drives.

These experiments, however, were failures. Progress on a compromise seemed so doomed to failure that sabotage rumours arose. Some said the war was being deliberately fostered by companies who would benefit from the failure of high definition optical disk technology. For instance, companies serving high definition content online, or over airwaves, with hard disk high definition content storage, would certainly benefit if there was no alternative disk medium. Of course, all such intimations were strongly denied.

Possibly, and perhaps surprisingly, the final death blow for HD-DVD came from the gaming industry. As next-generation consoles came through, anticipation was not only focussed on graphical and processing advancements, but on the optical drive technology to be employed. For their part, Microsoft created a HD-DVD player as an add-on for the X-Box console, but Sony’s PS3 shipped Blu-ray ready.

It was a smart move by Sony. Sales of the PS3 far outstripped the X-Box in the influential Japanese market, and uptake of Microsoft’s add-on HD-DVD player, or indeed any HD-DVD player, was poor in comparison. It was clear; Blu-ray had finally outflanked its opponent.

By the end of 2005 the BD format appeared to have a lead over its rival. By then, most major movie studios had come over to the Blu-ray camp, and committed to releasing films in the format by the following year. There were a number of skirmishes still to play out. Notably, HD-DVD players were first released by Sony in January 2006, a few months ahead of Blu-ray, which they hoped was a major coup. It didn’t prove to be any great advantage, though, as consumer take-up was very slow. Also, new triple layer HD-DVD specifications created ripples as late as September 2007, bring the HD-DVD’s capacity up to 51GB.

But it was too late: HD-DVD had lost. The power and influence of the DVD Forum waned, membership numbers falling. At time of writing, with considerable irony the DVD Forum’s FAQ for HD-DVD technology still reads: Coming soon!

The years 2002 to 2008 saw an ugly and damaging battle between rival formats echoing the VCR VHS/Betamax format war which raged in the decade ending in the late 1980s. However, unlike the prevailing opinion of the VCR war’s outcome, perhaps this time the better option won through. Blu-ray’s advantages over HD-DVD included better interactivity, better Internet connectivity, and far larger storage capacity.

But it was a fight to the bitter death. Blu-ray only walked away victorious when Toshiba finally announced the discontinuation of HD-DVD technology in the autumn of 2008.