Diary of a High Definition Format War
Here are my personal highlights (and lowlights) of the format war, from down in the trenches of the HD DVD team at Microsoft. To make it a bit clearer, here is a graph of the peaks and troughs of the last three years:
April 2005: I join the Profession Content Group. Immediately start work on iHD engine (later renamed HDi™) for the PC. (Eventually this code will run on Xbox, Linux and Windows CE too).
August 2005: HD DVD Spec 1.0 is finished, and a party is held on a boat on Lake Washington with lots of Microsoft and Toshiba folks, along with some Studio people too. Weather is great, and a good time is had by all.
September 2005: Microsoft announces we are HD DVD exclusive (along with Intel).
September 2005: I see my first Xbox 360!
October 2005: First HD DVD drives turn up from Toshiba.
Jan 2006: At CES we demo Bourne Supremacy HD DVD running with animated menus and subtitles that include a picture of who is speaking (a feature never used on a shipping title). The demo was running on Vista. I had worked for a week on a lip-sync bug and when the demo was run the audio was turned off anyway.
Jan 2006: At CES Xbox announced they would be producing an HD DVD add-on, which was a complete surprise to everyone except those on the stage.
Jan 2006: At CES Toshiba give away the first HD DVD Hybrid discs: a single sided disc that has both DVD and HD DVD content on it. BD can’t ever do that.
Jan 2006 (I think): The team sees the first Toshiba HD-A1 prototype (called Excalibur) running the first real HD content. To general delight the demo content was created by Toshiba with an HD camcorder and features shots of the August Launch Party: the first HD DVD content I ever see includes me drinking on a boat in the sunshine: who would have thought?
March 2006: The team has a party at The Big Picture in Redmond when we watch The Last Samurai from an HD DVD check disc, on a prototype A1 player, on a theater-sized screen. I recall one playback glitch and a problem with subtitles, but overall impressions were kick-ass.
April 2006: Toshiba ship the first HD DVD player, the HD A1, to great reviews, for $499. First three titles in the US are Phantom of the Opera, Million Dollar Baby, and The Last Samurai. My own A1 arrives at home!
May 2006: Bourne Supremacy is released, the first HD DVD title using Picture in Picture to show the director’s commentary. It takes BD over eighteen months to get the same ability, and then it only works on Profile 1.1 players (i.e. the PS3).
June 2006: Samsung release the first Blu-ray player, for $999. A few weeks later the team gathered in front of one and checked out the first BD titles. Man how we laughed: lots of hour-glasses while we waited for, well pretty much everything. The menus were more primitive than DVD menus: tiny chapter icons, and only as many that could fit on a single screen. Weird. Then we watched The Fifth Element, and saw how bad the picture quality was. We couldn’t believe how lame everything was in comparison to HD DVD. And for twice the price. Things were looking up.
November 2006: Microsoft ship the Xbox 360 HD DVD Player for $199 to generally good reviews. It’s a lot faster than the Toshiba players but suffers from Xbox hardware limitations (no HDMI, later fixed, and no advanced multi-channel audio output).
June 2007: The first network-aware HD DVD title is released, Freedom 1 from Bandai, which allowed additional content to be downloaded from the internet. It takes BD three more versions to offer the same feature and as of this writing, eight months later, exactly zero BD Profile 2.0 players are available (although strangely there are two BD titles that claim networking features).
August 2007: Paramount announces they are going HD DVD exclusive, having tried being dual format for a while. Champagne and goodies are consumed in the hallways. This was the best day for HD DVD for sure. All of a sudden we weren’t the underdogs any more, we had a real shot at winning this thing. (Sadly Sony come to a similar realization and start getting the big checks ready).
December 2007: Hardware and software sales are strong for HD DVD. Everyone is happy.
Jan 4, 2008: Black Friday. The team are called to a special meeting called at 11am where we learn of Warner’s decision to go Blu-ray only, which they promptly do publicly an hour later. Without a doubt the worst day in the life of HD DVD.
Jan 2008: CES 2008 turns into an unhappy experience for HD DVD, starting the day after the Warner bombshell. Cool demos never see the light of day and everyone is pretty shell-shocked.
Feb 2008: A bunch more bad news from Wal-mart, Netflix and Best Buy.
Feb 19, 2008: Toshiba announce they are dropping HD DVD. We lost. We were robbed. I feel like the Democrats after the 2000 election.