Blu-ray is victor; let the buying begin

The Baltimore Sun

Buddy Schwartz can finally celebrate his birthday.

The Parkville resident had been saving his money since August to buy a new high-definition DVD player, but he has been waiting to see which format would win out: HD DVD or Blu-ray. Both offer enhanced picture and sound but, alas, cannot be used interchangeably.

"I just didn't want to spend my money and turn around and say, 'Wow, that was a waste of $400,'" he said while shopping at a Target store.

Schwartz's wait ended yesterday when Toshiba Corp., which had been promoting its HD DVD format, announced that it would stop making those players - consigning the machines to the same fate as Sony's Betamax video player of the 1980s.

Toshiba estimated that more than 1 million customers purchased its HD DVD players, including about 600,000 in the United States. Electronics stores might have to deal with consumers eager to return newly purchased HD DVD players.

"This shows some of the potential pitfalls of being an early adopter. If you jump into the market before the standards have shaken out, you certainly stand the chance of being on the side of the player that's on the losing side of the battle," said Chris Murray, senior counsel for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

Recent buyers of the now-obsolete technology could try to be made whole, however, he said.

"Consumers could try taking them back to the store and say, 'Gee, you sold me an obsolete piece of technology here. Is there anything you can do for me? Could you give me an exchange on a Blu-ray set?'" Murray said. "I don't know if that is going to go anywhere, but you could try."

The competition between Blu-ray, made by Sony Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and others, and Toshiba's HD DVD escalated in recent months, with major movie houses and electronics retailers declaring allegiances.

Toshiba officially conceded the fight yesterday, saying shipments of HD DVD machines to retailers will be reduced and will stop by the end of March.

Toshiba Corp. President Atsutoshi Nishida said he wanted to avoid consumer confusion and realized Toshiba had failed to win Hollywood backing. Last month's decision by Warner Bros. Entertainment to release movie discs only in the Blu-ray format was the definitive blow, he said.

"That had tremendous impact," he said. "If we had continued, that would have created problems for consumers, and we simply had no chance to win."

Nishida acknowledged that the company could face class-action suits in the U.S. from disgruntled HD DVD owners. He said the company would continue to provide product support for the machines.

In recent months, Wal-Mart and Target had decided to carry only Blu-Ray players, and Blockbuster and Netflix had opted to rent only Blu-ray DVDs.

That's why Brian Kellum purchased a Blu-ray player Saturday, after his old DVD player broke.

"It was in the back of my mind that several companies had committed to Blu-ray. ... Once that happens, it's a snowball effect," said Kellum, a regional manager of Record & Tape Traders, which sells new and used DVDs of various formats in Towson and other locations.

Tom Pape of Baltimore's Beverly Hills neighborhood said he wasn't sure he would switch to a high-definition format, but certainly not until prices come way down.

"Four hundred dollars a player is ridiculous," he said, referring to the retail cost of a Blu-Ray player.

And even then, Pape, 45, said he is looking ahead to when all media will be downloaded rather than physically owned. "It just doesn't make sense now to buy hard copies of anything," he said.

Ross Rubin, a director of industry analysis for the NPD group, a market-research company, said yesterday's decision creates a "clear direction" for retailers and consumers.

"Retailers will be able to devote more shelf space to Blu-ray and consumers can feel more secure in buying the format, which should drive volumes and economies of scale," he said.

Sony "pursued a strategy of using the PlayStation 3 as a Trojan horse for consumers," he said.

Sony has sold 3.52 million PlayStation 3s since they were released in 2006, and all of those video game consoles also play Blu-ray movies, Rubin said.

"It seemed that there was a big disparity between movie titles and stand-alone players, suggesting that PS3 owners may have bought movie titles," he said.

Both consumer demand and corporate maneuvering contributed to the success of Blu-ray, he said. Toward the end of 2007, the price gap between HD DVD and Blu-ray players had narrowed, Rubin said. Some DVD players were selling for as low as $150.

Toshiba conceded defeat earlier than Sony, which stuck by Betamax for about a decade in its competition with the VHS technology, he said.

Best Buy announced its endorsement of Blu-ray last week, but the store will continue to stock HD DVD movie titles as long as they're available, spokesman Brian Lucas said.

"Once that demand dries up, we'll pull them from shelves," he said.

The standard 30-day return policy applies, but before customers rush to give back recent purchases, Lucas advised that the machines still play the HD DVDs that people have purchased, in addition to standard DVDs. They also "up-convert" standard DVDs to high-definition format, he said.

"It's not like your HD DVD [player] is not going to be of any use any more," Lucas said.

Traditional DVDs can also be played on Blu-Ray machines.

The Consumers Union's Murray called Toshiba's action "an unfortunate situation for the consumer" who had bought HD DVD players, as well as movies in that format.

But Murray said, "It's not as if these players will stop functioning; it's just that over time, it becomes less and less compatible. There won't be much made or printed in this format going forward."

Schwartz, who turned 46 in August, wasn't waiting for resolution on the format wars before adding to his collection of about 300 traditional DVDs. He bought two movies at the Target store in Towson yesterday: American Gangster for him and Disney's The Aristocats for his 4-year-old daughter.

But he is going to wait to buy a new Blu-ray DVD player - until a good sale.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tanika White and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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