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Old 07-29-2010   #1
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Post Part 2 - Blu-ray: Dogged by delays, will it still have its day?

Continued from Part 1

by Brian Dipert, Senior Technical Editor -- EDN, July 29, 2010

Ironically, market-analysis reports consistently conclude that most camcorder owners do no video editing whatsoever, much less burn the results to an optical-disc archive. Instead, they often simply toss tapes or memory cards into a desk drawer or shoe box. Alternatively, they use YouTube and related online services as their content repositories, uploading clips directly from their cameras using USB-tethered computers as intermediary transfer devices. The convenience seems to have trumped the disadvantages: lossy compression and low-resolution images. Analogies to the embrace of MP3 audio are apt. This trend explains the booming popularity of Cisco’s Flip flash-memory-based camera line and its competitors from Creative Labs, Eastman Kodak, and other companies. It also explains why many camcorder users were oblivious to the blue-laser-optical-disc-format wars.

Speaking of standards, Blu-ray has undergone several significant evolutionary steps through its short life. Consumers’ reluctance to purchase hardware that will inevitably become out of date partway through the evolutionary path is therefore understandable. Initial player generations followed the BD (Blu-ray disc)-Video 1.0, the so-called initial standard or grace-period profile. This profile left optional, therefore largely unimplemented, key features, such as local-storage capability, secondary audio and video decoders— enabling picture-in-picture support, for example—and virtual-file-system support. Profile 1.1 players, which currently still constitute most of the equipment on the market, made improvements in each of these areas, requiring, for example, 256 Mbytes of local storage, thereby enabling the Bonus View limited enhanced-feature mode.

However, Profile 1.1 players extended Profile 1.0’s stance of not requiring network-access support. In contrast, HD-DVD players include this capability from first-generation hardware. As such, the Blu-ray players couldn’t access Internet-housed added features, for example, and end users could not easily update players’ firmware to fix incompatibility bugs they discovered with the release of subsequently published titles. Profile 2.0, the so-called final standard, is the latest published Blu-ray specification iteration. It requires built-in network connectivity and boosts local storage to a minimum of 1 Gbyte. As such, the feature suite that Bonus View formerly branded is now BD-Live.

Managed Copy is another as-yet-unrealized Blu-ray feature that was available in HD DVD from its earliest days. When (or perhaps more accurately if) cognizant hardware implements it, it enables consumers to make legal and bit-accurate digital copies of discs they’ve purchased. The mention of “copies” inevitably leads to the broader topics of digital-rights management and content encryption, which have also undergone development during Blu-ray’s lifetime. Initial discs relied solely on the AACS (Advanced Access Content System), an expansion of DVD’s CSS (content-scrambling system), which, like its CSS predecessor, hackers quickly cracked. The Blu-ray Association’s response, BD+, leveraged a virtual-machine-architecture approach. Hackers have cracked it, as well, as software products such as SlySoft’s Any-DVD HD suggest. Offshore manufacturers often develop these products; as such, they are beyond the reach of US copyright-court jurisdiction.

Hollywood is even concerned with real-time degraded copies that individuals might create through intermediary digital-to-analog and digital-to-analog transformations using a player’s component-video outputs. As such, a revision of the Adopter Agreement that the AACS Licensing Authority released last year requires manufacturers to phase out by 2013 all unencrypted—that is, analog—video outputs in players. For the near term, such a move may stimulate Blu-ray-hardware sales to consumers whose displays lack or have too few digital inputs (Reference 9). For the long term, however, such potential customers, also including those whose displays support now-obsolete HDMI generations, will be loath to embrace Blu-ray by virtue of the substantial incremental expense they’ll need to shoulder in the form of new TVs.

Streaming successor?

Concerning the price decreases that are occurring more rapidly than manufacturers intended for Blu-ray players and media, consider that the first Blu-ray player in the United States, Samsung’s BD-P1000, which the company released in June 2006, initially cost $999 (Figure 3). Toshiba’s rival HD-A1, which it released roughly two months earlier, originally sold for $799. Last year, during a “Black Friday” promotion, Walmart sold the Magnavox NB500 Blu-ray player for $78, a roughly 13-fold price reduction from that $999 starting point. Nowadays, more than four years after the BD-P1000 first went on sale, Blu-ray players selling for less than $100 are commonplace. Even if you assume that consumer-electronics manufacturers are still clinging to at least a modicum of profitability despite this rapid price decrease, you can imagine the cost pressure that they’re passing along to their building-block-IC suppliers.

Blu-ray: Dogged by delays, will it still have its day? figure 4Ken Lowe, vice president of marketing at Sigma Designs, indicated early this year that, as a result of the cost pressures, the company had withdrawn its interest in entry-level Blu-ray-only designs, preferring instead to focus on more lucrative value-added platforms. He refers to the new generation of set-top-boxes, devices that begin with a Blu-ray base and augment it with network-connection-enabled playback of Internet-based content from sites such as Amazon Videos On Demand, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and Yahoo, along with access to LAN NAS (network-attached- storage)-stored audio, video, and still-image material (Figure 4).

Ironically, much of this content is SD in native resolution. The local playback device then dynamically upscales it to match the pixel count of the destination display. Manufacturers are doing whatever it takes to sell gadgets in the near term. The sales of these gadgets, however, are, for the long term, negatively affecting Blu-ray’s fundamental sales premise: high-quality “true,” high-resolution content. Netflix even last year brought streaming support to the PS3. Netflix streams HD content to consumers if their broadband connections support the necessary bit rates, but such material is high-resolution only in the strictest pixel-count definition of the term. Its aggressive compression renders it generally inferior to 720p and 1080i ATSC broadcasts, for example.

Reed Hastings, chief executive officer of Netflix, has repeatedly mentioned his company’s long-term aspirations to get out of the disc-shipping business and move to a streaming-delivery model. This move would substantially reduce the company’s operating costs by eliminating warehousing, processing, shipping, postage, and lost-and- damaged-goods expenses. Netflix’s job site recently posted a presentation in which the company forecasts that the disc-by-mail business will peak in 2013, after which content streaming will drive business growth. The presentation estimates that 100 million households in the United States currently have pay-TV subscriptions and contrasts that figure with Netflix’s 14 million subscribers at the end of March, which the company expects to rise to 17 million by year-end.

Apple is another strong advocate of Internet-based content delivery, as its online iTunes store demonstrates. You might expect that a portion of the company’s desktop and laptop computers would by now have incorporated built-in Blu-ray burners, given Apple’s longstanding embrace of multimedia and the dominance of the Mac in multimedia- content creation. At press time, however, Apple was still relying exclusively on third-party hardware and software partners to bring Blu-ray support to the Mac ecosystem. Blu-ray’s capacity isn’t even necessary for hard-drive backups; the Mac 10.5 and 10.6 operating systems contain Time Machine, a feature that automatically and periodically mirrors content to a USB- or network-tethered hard drive.

The company’s mercurial chief executive officer, Steve Jobs, referred to the Blu-ray situation as a “bag of hurt” during a 2008 press conference. Many in the industry, however, believe that the company’s rejection of Blu-ray is a strategic move to accelerate adoption of the presumed online-delivery heir apparent. Microsoft made public its similar aspirations in response to Toshiba’s decision to shutter its HD-DVD efforts in February 2008, indicating that it had no intention of offering a Blu-ray accessory for the Xbox 360 but would instead focus its development and promotion efforts on consumer purchases and rentals from its Video Marketplace, now known as the Zune Marketplace. Blu-ray founder Sony has even entered the act, offering rentals and purchases of movies and other video material from an online store accessible through the PS3.

You can reach Senior Technical Editor Brian Dipert at brian.dipert@cancom.com, and www.bdipert.com.
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