Warner Brothers Entertainment announced that it now plans to release high-definition movies in the Blu-ray Disc format in addition to HD DVD, making it the second HD DVD studio to announce dual-format support.
The decision, which also involves Warner joining the Blu-ray Disc Association's board came days after Paramount made a similar announcement.
Explaining why Warner opted to announce its decision at this time, Warner Home Video (WHV) president Jim Cardwell told TWICE that “the specifications for Blu-ray were being finalized, and there were specific functionalities that we wanted in those specifications that we felt we could better influence if we were an insider in the BDA than if we were outsiders.”
The move gives the Blu-ray camp, which is led by Sony, Philips, Panasonic and others, a significant power boost in its battle to control the next-generation optical-disc market.
The Time Warner-owned studio had been one of the HD DVD camp's biggest supporters. The HD DVD group is led by Toshiba and NEC.
At last January's International CES, Warner led a number of studios, including Paramount and Universal, in announcing a slate of HD DVD titles they planned to release to support the launch of HD DVD.
That launch was planned for late this year, but was recently pushed back into early 2006, Toshiba said, to ensure enough software and hardware was available for a full-scale launch.
Warner executives have said for months that they preferred to release titles under a unified format to avert a format war like the Betamax versus VHS contest that dogged the launch of the VCR in the early stages.
“We've been trying to get a single format for many years by talking to both of the different format makers,” said Marsha King, WHV new business development executive VP. “Despite our best efforts it appeared that a format war was inevitable and we want to supply our consumers with our product in what ever disc format they adopt.”
King said Warner made its original decision to support HD DVD “based on the information that was available,” suggesting that Blu-ray backers had not revealed enough system information to satisfy the studio's concerns.
Sony “provided us with some information about the platform and agreed to adopt some requirements that we thought were important in either format,” King said.
One element that King said Warner felt “very important” was inclusion of red-laser high-definition playback capability.
“The BDA adopted what they call the BD-9, which the HD DVD Group is calling HD DVD-9,” said King. “This is a red laser high-definition attribute, so you can use advanced compression to have red laser high definition discs. This provides us with a low-cost consumer option.”
King said Warner also wanted assurances that a “managed copy” option would be included in the format. Managed copy, she said, is a part of the AACS content protection system that both formats have said they will include in their specifications. But King said AACS was not finalized yet.
“AACS, which contains managed copy, was done by a group with which we participate,” King explained. “We felt very strongly that in order to get that type of protection we would be able to give consumers more choice by having the managed copy available.”
Among other things, managed copy would give consumers the ability to transfer legally acquired content from HD discs to other devices on a home network, including PCs and portable devices, while restricting the ability to mass produce that content or distribute it over the Internet.
Meanwhile, the BDA has said it will include an additional digital rights management (DRM) system called BD+. King said Warner still has not seen the BD+ spec and is uncertain of its full abilities and limitations.
“We feel AACS is state-of-the-art copy protection which has what we think we need as well as what the consumer needs,” said King. “We are not totally privy to what BD+ will do to that, but since we'll have that option, we'll feel comfortable now distributing our product in the Blu-ray format.”
Less of a concern to Warner was what interactivity system the format would include. The HD DVD format has backed the Microsoft endorsed iHD system, while the BDA has sided with BD-J, a version of Sun Microsystem's Java.
“iHD wasn't one of the most important things we wanted,” WHV's Cardwell, told TWICE.
King added, “But in light of what Hewlett-Packard has said we feel they should include both BD-Java and iHD.”
Earlier in the week Hewlett-Packard, an early Blu-ray Disc supporter, asked the BDA to include the “managed copy” content management and “iHD” interactive control technologies supported by HD DVD into the Blu-ray spec. HP, a major PC manufacturer, wanted to ensure that the BD format would be fully supported by next-generation digital home networking systems and presumably the Windows Vista operating system that Microsoft will eventually release.
Prior to the HP request, Microsoft and Intel had announced exclusive support for HD DVD, citing “managed copy” and “iHD” interactivity among a list of key reasons for its decision.
In its Blu-ray support statement, the studio said that WHV “will release titles on the Blu-ray format to support the launch of Blu-ray players in North America, Japan and Europe.”
“Consumers will soon be able to enjoy a large selection of catalog favorites and contemporary hits from Warner's vast library on the Blu-ray format,” said Cardwell.
Due to the added cost, he added that WHV will likely sell separate SKUs of HD DVD and Blu-ray titles, rather than bundling discs of both formats in one package.
In reaction, Toshiba fired off a statement from Japan saying it continues to work with Warner Brothers on the commercial launch of HD DVD and that it is “more than confident” the announcement will not affect timely introduction of HD DVD content to the market.
Toshiba executives have said that Blu-ray has still not perfected mass production of BD-ROM discs that will be required for prerecorded movies, and that it expects to have an early lead in the market.
“We recognize Warner Brothers' participation in the Blu-ray Disc Association represents the studio's understandable commitment to listen to broad array of opinions and to continue to make technical evaluations of each format,” Toshiba's statement reads.
At the same time, market research firm Forrester Research called for Blu-ray Disc to win the format war, due to its growing support base.
King said Warner continues to hope for a unified format, adding it's hard to conjecture what would happen in the marketplace if both formats compete head-to-head.
“You can't really compare this to VHS and Beta, because that was a different model where the recorder was out many years before we had prerecorded material on it,” said King.