Get It Together, Blu-ray
Okay, I said I wouldn't use this space for pontificating, but I really can't resist this week. I want to add my voice to Tom Norton's, who, in a recent blog, wrote about what the Blu-ray community needs to do to succeed in the packaged-media market now that HD DVD is out of the picture. I'd like to elaborate on some of the issues he raised.
One key to Blu-ray's success—or failure—is increased standardization. As it is now, most player features, such as bookmarking, online connectivity, and support for advanced audio codecs, are optional; manufacturers can implement them or not as they see fit. By contrast, all HD DVD players were required to implement all features, such as bookmarking, online connectivity, and support for advanced audio codecs, or at least include the necessary hardware that could then be enabled with a firmware update.
As a result, any HD DVD will play in any player with the latest firmware. (Granted, recent firmware updates for some players have reportedly caused problems with 1080p/24 playback of AVC-encoded titles, but that's another issue.) By contrast, some Blu-ray discs have trouble in some players—they might take minutes to load or not play at all. Even if the movie plays, you might not be able to take advantage of—or even access—some of its features. This encourages content providers to author titles according to the lowest common denominator, leaving out features that won't work on many players.
I got a first-hand look at this issue in my review of Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics from Joe Kane Productions. This test disc is available on both Blu-ray and HD DVD, and the differences between them illustrate the problems caused by Blu-ray's optional-features paradigm. For example, the HD DVD version provides bookmarking, which lets you select and arrange clips as you wish. Most Blu-ray players do not support bookmarking, so the Blu-ray version of HD Basics does not offer it.
Nowhere is the problem of Blu-ray's "optionality" more obvious than in the whole notion of Profiles. As most readers probably know by now, there are three Profiles that mandate certain player capabilities, even though most features remain optional in all of them.
Profile 1.0 is the most basic, requiring support for the three video codecs (MPEG-2, AVC, and VC-1) as well as Dolby Digital, DTS, and PCM audio, but none of the newer advanced audio codecs. The requirement for Dolby Digital, DTS, and PCM ensures that audio of some sort will emerge from the player with any disc, but the advantages of the advanced codes might well be unavailable. To be fair, many—if not most—Blu-ray discs include a PCM soundtrack, which is equal in quality to the Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio lossless codecs. Profile 1.0 also requires support for BDMV and BD-J interactivity. (BDMV provides a more limited degree of interactivity than BD-J, which is derived from the Java programming language.)
Profile 1.1, also known as BonusView, adds picture-in-picture and secondary audio mixing from discs that offer them and requires at least 256MB of onboard memory, which can be located in a USB thumb drive or other external memory device connected to the player. Profile 2.0, officially called BD-Live, requires an Ethernet port for online connectivity and at least 1GB of memory.
According to the Blu-ray Disc Association, all Profiles have been completely defined since the format's launch in 2006, but manufacturers have not implemented the advanced ones until now because they wanted to "walk before they ran." This strategy has been a disaster for consumers who bought early Blu-ray players only to find that they can't take advantage of some features on some discs, and they never will, no matter how many firmware updates are released.
The only exception seems to be Sony's PlayStation 3. In a recent news story, UAV reported that Sony will soon release a firmware update for the PS3 to implement Profile 2.0 along with some other features, such as resume play and mosquito noise reduction. According to footnotes in the press release, however, resume play won't work with BD-J titles, and mosquito NR won't work with BDMV titles.
As a side note, the PS3 will never be able to output Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreams due to hardware constraints. It can decode Dolby TrueHD to PCM, and it is rumored that a future firmware update might allow it to do the same with DTS-HD MA.
Then there's copy protection, one of the only things that is absolutely required by Blu-ray, even on so-called "check discs," which costs content producers thousands of extra dollars just to see if there are any problems with the mastering and authoring before the title is replicated. And you wonder why Blu-ray discs are so expensive? By contrast, HD DVD's copy protection was optional—if producers wanted to protect their content, they could, but they didn't have to, and making check discs cost them a lot less.
I understand that the movie studios want to protect their considerable investment, but their attitude borders on paranoia. Not only that, there is no form of copy protection that can't—and won't—be broken. AACS (Advanced Access Content System), the basic copy-protection system used by both Blu-ray and HD DVD, was hacked some time ago. And BD+, Blu-ray's second line of defense, was recently defeated by SlySoft, whose AnyDVD HD software can make copies of Blu-ray titles protected by AACS and BD+.
As should be clear by now, I believe that HD DVD got it right and Blu-ray got it wrong in terms of what to make mandatory and what to make optional. If Blu-ray is to succeed, it must require more player features and let providers choose whether or not to implement copy protection. And the prices of players and discs must drop as well, just as Tom said in his blog. If the Blu-ray community can implement these changes, it has a bright future indeed. If not, the format might well be surpassed by online distribution before it can gain a foothold in the media marketplace. In any event, even though the format war is over, we still have interesting times ahead.
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