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The future of the Blu-ray format; winning the battle but losing the war?

Updated on July 12, 2009

For a format in its infancy, Blu-ray has seen a lot of drama since its launch in 2006. Initially plagued by delays, the format was considered by many to be doomed from its inception, yet it survived the early scares and famously went on to win the“format war”with HD DVD, the format led by Toshiba, in 2008.

However, was Sony's excitement over its victory over HD DVD justified? Does Blu-ray have a long-term future, and more importantly, is it worth buying a Blu-ray player, when high-definition downloads are rapidly becoming more easily available?

The Blu-ray's format current situation

Through no fault of its own, Blu-ray has come along at a time of global recession and uncertainty, which has obviously affected its sales. According to a 2009 Harris Poll, just 7% of Americans own a Blu-ray player, while 11% have an HD DVD player, despite the latter format's withdrawal from the market. Even among owners of Blu-ray players, just 25% plan to switch to format completely. In other words, most Blu-ray owners continue to buy some standard DVDs, and plan to stick to this policy. In Sony's home country of Japan, Blu-ray disks occupy tiny sections of video stores. Some smaller rental outlets do not stock them at all due to their reputation for fragility.

Other surveys suggest a rosier picture. According to the British Video Association (BVA), sales of Blu-ray discs have defied the recession which has blighted the rest of the home entertainment sector. According to Hannah Conduct, the BVA's Marketing Manager, sales of re-released classics like Trainspotting and Bladerunner have also been high, suggesting that some consumers are upgrading their DVD collections to high definition.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Most worryingly for Blu-ray backers, however, is that the huge growth in ownership of high-definition TVs contrasts with the ambiguous growth of the Blu-ray format. According to the Harris Poll, 47% of Americans now own an HDTV. The TVs are obviously being sold in the same turbulent marketplace as Blu-ray players and disks. Either these people are watching standard definition movies and shows, unaware (or unconcerned) that they're missing out, or they are getting their high definition fix from HDTV channels or from legal or illegal downloads.

Blu-ray's future

It is the sense that a breakthrough in high-definition downloads is near that leads experts to be skeptical of Blu-ray's future. Interviewed in the New York Times in January 2009, Roger L. K of Endpoint Technologies Associates, confidently predicted:“Streaming video from the Internet and other means of direct digital delivery are going to put optical formats out of business entirely over the next few years.”

However, outside of Japan, South Korea and a few other countries, HD video downloads are unlikely to reach a breakthrough in the next few years due to poor availability of ultra-fast broadband Internet connections. Vudu, Apple iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand have made HD movie downloads available, but they can't compete in terms of quality, selection or mass availability.

The likeliest outcome for the next few years is that Blu-ray and HD downloads will co-exist in the same marketplace. However, it really is a question of when downloads take over, not if. If you are planning to buy a Blu-ray player, think carefully about the long-term prospects of the format. Cheap Blu-ray players are available from not much more than $100, so there is no need to invest too heavily on a medium that may be on borrowed time.

The Blu-ray movie experience comes highly recommended; in particular, modern blockbusters look staggeringly immersive in high definition. However, there is no comparison with the jump from VHS to DVD. Becoming accustomed to DVDs quickly made the VHS format seem unwatchable, whereas recent standard DVDs still hold up well in comparison. Buy a Blu-ray player by all means (I wouldn't be without mine) but be aware of its uncertain prospects.


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