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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 11:52 GMT
Battle for the next-gen DVD
DOT.LIFE - where tech meets life, every Monday
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

A war is being fought behind the scenes for control of the DVD player in your living room.

HD DVD discs
The next generation of DVD discs could hold as much as some hard drives
Lined up on opposite sides of the battlefield are giants of the world of technology, electronics and entertainment.

At stake is the way we are going to consume films, music and other digital goodies.

The fight is over the next generation of DVDs, which could hold up to five times more material than the discs used today.

The DVD is one of the success stories of the electronics industry of recent years. In the US alone, more than half of all homes have a DVD player. And it is now rare to find a computer that does not come with a DVD drive.

The discs have replenished the coffers of the Hollywood studios, which now make more than half of their money from DVD sales of movies.

Multimillion dollar tussle

The widespread popularity of these shiny discs has made the DVD the single most successful consumer product in history.

The successor to the current discs are unlikely to be in the shops before 2005 but the tussle to become the standard for a multimillion dollar industry is already well under way.

Blu-ray DVD player from Samsung
You could get a Blu-ray DVD player from Samsung...
On one side is the HD-DVD, (High Definition DVD), backed by a group led by Toshiba and NEC.

The HD-DVD discs can hold up to 30GBs and are more like an upgrade of current DVD technology.

"The consumer has a big DVD library. If the next generation of DVDs is different, then their current DVD library has no meaning," said a Toshiba spokeswoman.

"The consumer will appreciate compatibility with current DVDs."

The HD-DVD grouping is up against a powerful consortium of electronics giants, including Sony, Philips, Matsushita and Samsung, who back the incompatible Blu-ray format.

The Blu-ray discs can hold up to 50GBs and are based on blue/violet lasers.

"What is needed is a quantum leap in performance," Philips boss Frans Van Houten told a recent forum of the Blu-ray group.

"This holds true for all products. For success we need to offer a leap in improvement.

"Blu-ray has everything to wow consumers with a high-definition experience and much more."

Baffling acronyms

The arguments are reminiscent of the 1970s showdown between VHS and Betamax to become the de facto format for video tape.

HD DVD player from Toshiba
...and one from Toshiba to play HD DVD discs
In that war, VHS emerged triumphant. Ideally, everyone would like to agree on one standard for the next generation of DVD technology.

This would help keep costs down and avoid confusing the average punter.

Whether there will be as clear a winner this time round is unclear.

Even with current DVD technology, consumers face a multitude of baffling acronyms - DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-Ram.

The differences between the standards are being papered over by machines that can play these discs.

In the end, the decision may be left to the people who control the content - the big Hollywood studios.

They see the technology as a way of releasing high-definition versions of movies, with crystal clear images and sparkling sound, so long as there are adequate security measures to prevent piracy.

The Blu-ray group has an advantage here, thanks to Sony's substantial media empire.

"We want a significant wow factor in DVD interactivity," said Benjamin Feingold, president of Sony's Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

"We think Blu-ray discs are the pre-eminent step for high-definition packaged media.

"It allows Hollywood to seize those eyeballs for high-definition pictures."

So far, neither grouping shows signs of giving in. Both sides have shown off players using the latest technology and pilot production lines are already churning out thousands of HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Just to add to the confusion, China's emerging consumer electronics industry is looking to developing its own DVD format.

One thing is clear, though. The battle for control of the DVD of the future has only just begun.

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