HD quality to be beaten down by portability?

While the HD format struggle rages on, with the Sony-backed Blu-ray and Toshiba-backed HD-DVD hardware choices continually trading marketplace handbag blows concerning which should deservedly become the format of choice, a report has arisen examining whether the rather bemused consuming majority really cares who wins.

More pointedly, a BBC report has dared to ask whether high-definition DVD has “missed the boat” considering that today’s tech owners seem perfectly content viewing their movies and/or video clips on relatively low-definition mobile media devices. Is it therefore possible that regular (non-technophile) consumers might not be overly concerned with the supposed HD advantages of enhanced picture and sound performance when trends point to portability being far more important? Or does current widespread SD satisfaction merely exist because HD has yet to truly make its mark on consumer consciousness?   

Somewhat tenuously, the BBC’s report claims that public desire for “the very best picture – in a cinema, at least – is certainly not what it was,” with annual UK box office sales hovering at around 167 million after around 18 years of marked growth throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. This is then juxtaposed against the boom in low(er) quality videos being viewed online through such Web sites as Google’s YouTube, which is believed to post in excess of 65 million videos daily while streaming an approximate 100 million videos/clips during the same period.

While the report acknowledges these figures cannot be directly compared as watching (often copyright infringed?) content on YouTube is free, whereas enjoying the cinematic experience taxes the pocket, the point made is that picture quality is seemingly unimportant. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that said reduced picture and audio quality is perhaps only unimportant to consumers when it costs nothing to view the desired content. A faulty film reel, a hair in the gate, and hissing auditorium speakers soon become major problems to the consumer when money has been invested to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

That said, the portable playback appeal and undeniable proliferation of iPods, PDAs, mobile media players, Sony’s PlayStation Portable, and even swiftly progressing cell phones, has certainly proven that mobile convenience is a huge draw for consumers.

“I think that quality is still appreciated, but portability of content right now is crucial,” says Mike McGuire of tech analysts Gartner Group, regarding parallels drawn between high-definition DVD and portable media playback and impressive home-based hi-fi systems and today’s convenience-rich MP3 players.

Furthermore, from a content perspective, online DVD rental providers, such as LoveFilm, continue to enjoy steady growth in users downloading lower-quality but easy-to-deliver compressed movies via their services, which again suggests a consumer willingness to forego cutting edge performance for the sake of quick and easy attainment.    

Although the BBC report argues a good case in terms of consumer awareness in terms of portability, the ongoing evolution of Blu-ray and HD-DVD are entirely separate at this juncture. Indeed, as fairly fresh and expensive technology, it’s unlikely we’ll see HD displays integrated into PDAs and cell phones any time soon, and even if it were presently viable, why on Earth would any consumer care for it? On a tiny screen with largely ineffectual speakers, the benefits of HD are never going to be as glaringly evident when comparing a movie on the PlayStation Portable against the same movie playing on a 42” LCD TV that’s hooked up to a Blu-ray player and a pounding surround sound system.

Yes, portability is a great draw, but simply because the media can come along with us in order to fill holes in the day, whereas strapping a widescreen TV, HD-DVD player, and a portable power generator to our backs is considered somewhat of a pointless exercise.

The only point of genuine interest in the BBC report arises when considering that the public’s willingness to embrace HD might be damaged somewhat by the fact that existing DVDs can be converted, fairly easily, into a portable digital files, whilst high-definition discs “are more securely locked to prevent owners” from copying the content. 

While the act of copying or converting is, of course, illegal, as long as compression software such as DivX exists to enable DVD users to shrink digital information to around a tenth of its original size (thus losing considerable quality in the process) in order to carry it portably, then perhaps HD’s appeal will be lessened. However, it’s foolish to think that HD-DVD and Blu-ray won’t also fall to the hacking community (in fact, they already have), and that compression software won’t soon be available to allow HD users to carry portable media if they so choose.

The simple fact of this matter is pricing: nothing more, nothing less, and certainly not portability. As long as HD-DVD and Blu-ray hardware remains in a price range that sees consumers investing well over $500 USD for a player – not to mention an extra outlay for the prerequisite HDTV – then the buying public will stay faithful to DVD.

When the prices fall and HDTVs and digital television signals become the norm, then Blu-ray and/or HD-DVD will prosper. In the meantime, Sony and Toshiba will continue swinging their corporate handbags in the hopes of eliminating the opposition so that the mesmerised consumer’s eventual format decision is made all-the easier.

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