The NYT had a recent article (and The Register here) on the impending market entry of HD DVD and the recent breakdown in negotiations between the HD DVD camp and the Blu-ray camp. While both parties appeared willing to negotiate at the twelfth hour, technological limitations prevented a low-cost compromise. So, we’ll see the slow adoption of HD video disc content in much the same way as Betamax and VHS incompatibility slowed initial adoption of video cassette tapes.
Marc Cuban has proclaimed that this format war will
essentially be the dying gasp of portable disc-based video distribution. The problem is there are even worse format
incompatibilities on the Broadband distribution side. The primary formats are Windows Media Player
(WMP), Real Player, and Quicktime. It
could be argued that WinAmp and DivX belong in this group, but they really
don’t have the kind of reach that these other formats have (although P2P distribution
could change that considerably in the coming year.) Anyway, bottom line is that three different
codecs currently dominate the field. On
a PC, this doesn’t matter too much. As
long as you have all three installed (they’re all free) you can download and
play most videos. But this is a problem
as you begin to use the PC to rebroadcast video to other devices. TiVo, for example, only supports MPEG-2
As a video producer, if I want to deliver video to those platforms I have to post in both formats. (I can rely on an intermediary PC transcoding the content, but you’ll only have to see one transcode of a moderate quality WMP into a pitiful MPEG-2 to realize that this is not an ideal solution.) But posting a video file in multiple formats for different delivery platforms is a pain in the ass.
None of these companies want to give up their proprietary codec. Each knows what is at stake. Unfortunately for Real, this contest does not favor them. Both Apple and MSFT are willing to invest heavily in the development of their codecs without any direct return on that investment. Real doesn’t share this luxury. Ask Netscape how that all works out in the end. It’s tough to compete with free. So, this will probably boil down to Quicktime vs. WMP. (Although maybe something like the BBC's Dirac (and here) will come out of nowhere, but it doesn’t seem to hold that potential right now).
I would think that Microsoft has the clear advantage in this contest. While Apple is going to give Redmond a run for their money in the home entertainment space, Microsoft has made significant inroads into Hollywood and the set-top box markets that will be tough to overcome this late in the game. As choice narrows and users (sorry, the media industrial complex) are forced to pick a preference, it would appear that the world is likely to collapse into the WMP camp and they’ll serve up the winning codec. This will dramatically simplify the process of publishing video for any platform, but it will put Microsoft in an unfortunately powerful position in the burgeoning democratic media space.
They’re not the greatest technology partner when it comes to open network delivery, but they’re significantly more open than Apple. Anyway, I’ll be rooting for Dirac. It’s a stupid name and a long shot, but hell, a kid can dream can’t he?
UPDATE: I just noticed Om's post on MPEG4 popularity with IPTV providers in the telecom space. Certainly something to watch.