Sunday, October 29, 2006

High Definition Future, on the plane

Sunday, October 29, 2006 ad.


We are onboard Southwest flight 110 from Los
to Philadelphia, the former US
capital.. Me, Reza and Erdem travel together from our group and we will all
visit the conference on Plasma Physics.


I brought many magazines with me for this transcontinental
flight. Wired, Scientific American, PC Magazine, Discover, Time, and Physics Today.
Plus a gameboy (it’s also for the way back).


Southwest is a slightly different airline. There are huge
lines because a lot of people travel with them since they are very cheap. My
biggest surprise is that they do not have assigned seating… you just get a
boarding pass with the name and the flight number. Once you get there at the
gate you have to get in the line early in order to get in first(!). Once
inside, instead of walking past us with the tray of drinks and asking what
would we like to drink, they instead have a restaurant-style service system
where the waitress (sorry, stewardess) comes by with a pen and paper and asks
what you want to have, and after they go through all the passengers they bring
everyone what they ask for. Interesting approach.


I watched another great movie last Friday. The Last King of
Scotland, it is about Uganda’s
President/Dictator during the 1970’s, Amin, who eventually killed over 300,000
people during his 9 year reign. Forest Whittaker is perfect as Amin, he looks
and talks exactly like him. He gave the performance of his career and it is the
best male performance I have seen this year. He will be nominated for an Oscar
for sure and he may as well win since he just stands out.

The movie itself is very strong. It is a story of a
fictional Scottish doctor that goes to Uganda and serves as the personal
doctor of Amin. At the beginning he looks nice and funny and welcoming. But as
the movie progresses, the doctor (and us as the audience) begins to discover
the real face of Amin. The movie’s climax is brutal and gruesome, it had me
shaking as I was leaving the theater. It was not for kids, but I felt cleansed
and shocked afterwards. It was good.


(Reza says we are flying over the Grand
right now. This place and Hawaii
are the two places I have to visit before I leave the US).


But non of this is the main item I wanted to talk about
today. The main thing I wanted to talk about is the war on the next high
definition picture format, between Blue-ray discs and HD-DVD discs. It is
connected with the war between Sony’s PS3 (due to come out in US stores on Nov
17 this year) and X-Box 360. It is also connected with Amazon’s and Apple’s new
movie download services, and also with DVD-renting giant Netflix, which may
well make a move that will win them all at the end. I have to combine facts and
arguments from all this fields at the same time in order to present a picture of
what’s coming up. 2007 will be the year that winners and losers on these war
fronts will be decided. We had a lot of discussions with my housemate Andrew
and the guys at the office regarding these matters, and also I read a lot on
the web and on various blogs.

But let’s start with the high-def wars. As you might have
known, TV is getting a boost, similar to the boost that it got a few decades
ago when wee switched from black-and-white TV to color TV. Now every TV display
is in color. What is happening now is that people will eventually switch to
high-definition picture – it’s TV units and TV signals that have at least twice
the resolution of the current normal TV stations. They allow for better,
clearer picture and larger screens.


There are two aspects that have to change.  First, new TV displays have to be introduced
that support high-def resolutions. That is easier for some reason, since even
this year flat screen sales surpassed CRT screen sales. And these TVs are
mostly capable for the high-def picture. But the most important aspect is the
medium and the signal that has to convert in high-def. There are two main
options here: TV signals can be transmitted in high-def (HD), or HD can be
stored in discs. Most main TV stations in the US
and Japan
are already transmitting HD. Europe is kind if lagging behind but they’ll get
there soon enough.


We have HD in my home in the US. It is a vast difference over
normal TV. It has 16:9 cinematic aspect ratio, 5.1 digital sound, and clear,
vibrant colors. We get the signal from TV stations, were most shows are now
filmed in HD. But the real war is happening in the home movies, where two
different formats are fighting to be the successors of the DVD. They are the
Blue-Ray disc and the HD-DVD discs. Blue-Ray is supported by Sony, Dell and
some other big guys. That means that apart from standalone players, Blue-Ray
discs can/will be found in Sony’s Playstation 3 and Dell’s laptops. HD-DVD is
supported by Toshiba, Microsoft, and several other big film studios. Almost
every other non-dell/sony laptop will have an HD-DVD, as well as Microsoft’s
Xbox 360 (as an add-on – PS3 has it built in).


Right now different movies come out in different types of
formats! Either Blue-Ray or HD-DVD. Also, there are two different types of players,
with the cheapest Blue-Ray costing $1,000 and the cheapest HD-DVD costing only
$400. The question is, who is going to survive? Is this format war good for the
people? Definitely not. People now are confused and the sales of the HD media
are nor very strong. Personally I prefer the new media for the storage space
they offer, up to 50GB for the Blue-Ray. I think I will buy for my computer the
first HD recorder that will be below $300-$500. Of course, I don’t think that’s
happening for a while, so what about now, and what about next year?


The situation is complicated from the Next-Generation
consoles that Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are selling this year. Xbox 360 came
out last year and it is doing fairly well. The games support HD resolutions,
and Microsoft just announced an extra HD-DVD drive that can be added on. The
console sells at $400 and the extra player at $300 (or $200?).  Now, Sony PS3 will be released in 3 weeks,
and it will have a build-in Blue-ray drive. The total price is $600, and if you
remember that the cheapest Blue-Ray drive sells for $1,000, it simply means
that Sony will be losing money every time they sell a PS3. They are hoping to
win them back from game and movie sales. Right now analysts are unsure whether
the PS3 may bring Sony’s death (they announced 95% drop in sales this year) or
resurrection. Sony is obviously counting on the fact that people will buy the
console just for the drive only, but will it become true?


Since the drive will be used for HD movies, what about other
movie options out there? Apart from the classic video-store rentals, Netflix
has surfaced as a giant that they ship over 1,000,000 DVDs a day (!!!) to home
as a mail-in rental company. Also, about the same time Amazon unveiled Unbox
and Apple unveiled iTunes movie store, which are the biggest players in renting
and downloading movies online. You just pay the fee and you get TV episodes and
movie downloads right onto your hard drive for watching. They do not offer HD
yet, but rather DVD quality movies. However sooner or later they will add HD


So as you realize there is an initiative to bring more
content easier into the homes, and this content will eventually be all HD. Who
will win?


Another alternative that one has to consider is the rumors
about Netflix’s set-top box. This is just a box with internet-in and
video/audio-out, that sits on the living room and downloads movies over the net
overnight. Instead of mailing in envelopes or going to the video store, you
just order from your couch the movie you wish to watch! Of course, cable and
satellite TV offer this option on demand right now, but they charge per movie
viewing (pay-per-view) for something you will watch once and never use again.
Netflix charges a flat fee and you have unlimited movies (only a certain number
at t time though). People seem to prefer the flat fee plan better.


Now, what if Netflix releases this set-top box in a cheap
price that can also download HD movies? Essentially they are saying: why bother
with media and format wars? Screw Playstation and HD-DVD. Just get our box and
for a flat fee you can download HD movies without bothering to buy either a
player or a disc! In that way people won’t be confused with making a choice
since only a single option will be presented. This will also allows the
download of movies everywhere on the world, not limited to the US or
whichever region.


What is the final remark here? It is that eventually people
will get everything over the net. ABC and NBC TV shows are now available online
for free in excellent quality just a few hours after the premier. I think in a
few years, we will need nothing other than the net. Give me a strong internet
connection and I will give you phone, TV, movies, music, everything. This kind
of makes sense: a single provider through a single medium will sell all these
services, rather than today’s model where everyone is on a different channel.
Since almost everyone (and the TV at last!) is now digital, all these data can
be transmitted over the internet.


The bottom line is, media may become obsolete in the next
5-10 years. All we will ever need again is a good internet connection. The rest
is just software.




That’s enough for now. I will switch to reading my magazines
and get back from Philadelphia.












powered by performancing firefox

powered by performancing firefox