Analysis CES 2007 Glue is the solution to the next-generation optical disc format war. Glue, or whatever Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (WHE) is planning to use to bond - literally and metaphorically - the HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats to create a unified product, THD - Total HD disc.
As a solution to two, mutually incompatible disc types, THD is ridiculously simple, and it's a wonder no one thought of it before. But WHE is one of just two content companies who've chosen to back both formats and has committed itself to producing, effectively, two high-definition discs of everything. This puts it in the almost unique position of needing such a solution, necessity being the mother of invention, as the cliché has it.
But WHE is a fence-sitter, and while THD may well appeal to other equally ambivalent content providers, those firms that have sided with specific formats in the hope of squeezing out the other have potentially much less to gain by adopting it.
But first, here's how THD works. Master and manufacture an HD DVD. Master and manufacture a Blu-ray Disc. Either can be single- or dual-layer, and neither needs to have the same layer-count as the other. Now glue them together, back to back. And that's it.
As one disc replication company told us, any firm already producing both formats can now produce THDs. WHE claimed it's not looking at this clearly not-so-novel approach as a revenue stream, and indeed it's hard to see how even the US patent office would grant it ownership of the idea of sticking two 12cm discs together. After all, t's how two-layer DVDs were made back in the early days before the invention of DVD9.
When WHE gears up to launch a new HD title, it authors, masters and manufactures two discs, one HD DVD, the other Blu-ray, so fixing them together has no real cost implications. Yes, there's the extra manufacturing cost brought about by the bonding process, but that's almost certainly covered by the need to produce half as many cases. And there's just one SKU, to keep the retailers happy.
WHE hasn't determined how much it will charge for THDs, but it's not going to be twice the price of either an HD DVD or a BD, but it probably will include a premium, to help cover the cost of two discs rather than one. Undoubtedly, WHE is banking the higher price will nonetheless bring plenty of wavering consumers into the fold, making for an overall financial gain.
That's fine for WHE, and for Paramount, the other studio producing both BD and HD DVD versions of movies. But what about 20th Century Fox, Sony or Universal, who have committed themselves to one format? WHE said all the other studios are evaluating THD, as a process if not a brand, but every one that is, supporting WHE's system will mean making discs in a format they have explicitly rejected.
Buena Vista will be releasing Cars on Blu-ray. If it backs THD, it will have to produce an HD DVD version too. Now while retailers might convince it not to release the two as separate packages, even releasing the one will bring an increased cost the company won't have to bear if one format goes away.
And that's the problem. The single-format studios will undoubtedly continue to push there preferred format in the hope of killing off the other. To adopt THD - no less than adopting a dual release programme - could be seen as a sign of weakness. You can just see some Sony second-in-command turning up and declaring: "I find your lack of faith disturbing..."
Consumers, on the other hand, will clearly benefit from a disc that allows them to maintain their investment in a given hardware technology, and their demand for, if not a victor in the format war, then at least acceptable truce terms may push the studios down the THD route.
That then allows the hardware guys to pursue whichever format they prefer until one establishes itself prominent not for technological superiority but simply because its drives become much cheaper to make than the other format's.
At which point, whether HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc declares itself triumphant, no one will really care since their content libraries are not redundant. Which is good, and the best possible case for the glue solution.
Glu-ray Disc, anyone? ®
Read our complete CES 2007 coverage at Reg Hardware