Blu-ray DRM is officially dead. Chinese pirates selling Blu-ray movies for $7 each.

It took a bit longer than I expected, but the Chinese are ripping Blu-ray movies, cracking the DRM, and burning them to disc so they can sell them for next to nothing. The quality drops, but is still technically High Def and the movie industry is not happy:

Law enforcement in Shenzhen, China, raided a warehouse last month that contained HD copies of a number of popular movies. There were over 800 discs (so, what is that, like eight spindles?) that were packaged in faux Blu-ray boxes, complete with holograms to make them appear legitimate. According to the Motion Picture Association International, this is the “first ever” seizure of these types of discs in China.

The pirates are apparently ripping high-def movies (cracking Blu-ray’s AACS and BD+ encryption in the process) and re-encoding them using AVCHD, which offers a 720p picture. Because of the reduction in resolution, file sizes are smaller and can be burned to regular DVDs instead of the more costly Blu-ray discs, netting a tidy profit. Needless to say, the film industry isn’t thrilled by the news. “We are concerned and are assigning priority to this issue,” the MPA’s Asia-Pacific managing director Mike Ellis told the Wall Street Journal.

Movie piracy in China is by no means a new trend, but the proliferation of Blu-ray fakes out of Asia is being viewed as a serious threat that could make its way to other countries quickly. Ellis pointed out that pirates in China can be very enterprising and have exported their wares all over the globe in the past, so there’s nothing stopping them from doing so with this new format. “These syndicates are very quick to spot market opportunities,” he said.

Considering that standard Blu-ray carries an average price of $30 (which is why I only have a few movies on Blu-ray at the moment) the $7 the pirates are asking will probably more than make up for the content “only” being 720P. It won’t be long before those techniques are widespread. Another proof of the adage that if you can make it, they can break it.

PS3 firmware 2.20 due soon. Adds Blu-ray profile 2.0 support.

The PS3’s usefulness as a Blu-ray player and media hub is part of its growing success and Sony know that. Which is probably why the upcoming 2.20 firmware update is almost all about media playback as opposed to gaming:

Most notably, the update enables the PS3 to support Blu-ray Disc Profile 2.0, also known as BD-Live. You can connect now to the Internet while playing discs that support BD-Live to obtain additional content and special features. These features vary from disc to disc, and will keep your BD discs fresh with new content and in some cases exclusive content only accessible to owners of BD-Live enabled discs. On April 8th Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release The 6th Day and Walk Hard on Blu-ray; these titles will be among the first to take advantage of BD-Live. With this update, the PLAYSTATION 3 becomes the first Blu-ray player on the market with BD-Live functionality.

Here are some of the other new features/enhancements that will be included in Firmware v2.20:

  • The ability to copy PS3 Music and Photo playlists to a PSP system. We introduced the ability to create Music and Photo playlists on the PS3 in firmware update v2.0. Now you can easily export your playlists to your PSP.
  • You can now play DivX and WMV format files that are over 2 GB. In addition, you can now display subtitles when viewing DivX files.
  • Resume Play – begin playing a DVD or BD disc from the point where you previously stopped it, even if you eject the disc and insert a different movie or game.
  • Use your PSP as a remote control to play back your music files on your PS3 without turning on your TV.
  • The Internet browser now displays some web pages faster. In addition [Save Target] has been added as an option under file. This option lets you save a file that is linked to a web page to your PS3 hard drive or storage media.

With only two games under my belt at the moment my PS3 gets used more for its media capabilities than its gaming prowess whether that’s in the form of Blu-ray titles from Netflix or streaming episodes of Torchwood and Doctor Who in DivX format. It’s definitely been a worthwhile investment.

It’s official. HD-DVD is dead. Blu-ray wins the format war.

Toshiba put out a press release this morning:

TOKYO—Toshiba Corporation today announced that it has undertaken a thorough review of its overall strategy for HD DVD and has decided it will no longer develop, manufacture and market HD DVD players and recorders. This decision has been made following recent major changes in the market. Toshiba will continue, however, to provide full product support and after-sales service for all owners of Toshiba HD DVD products.

HD DVD was developed to offer consumers access at an affordable price to high-quality, high definition content and prepare them for the digital convergence of tomorrow where the fusion of consumer electronics and IT will continue to progress.

“We carefully assessed the long-term impact of continuing the so-called ‘next-generation format war’ and concluded that a swift decision will best help the market develop,” said Atsutoshi Nishida, President and CEO of Toshiba Corporation. “While we are disappointed for the company and more importantly, for the consumer, the real mass market opportunity for high definition content remains untapped and Toshiba is both able and determined to use our talent, technology and intellectual property to make digital convergence a reality.”

Toshiba says they have no interest in producing Blu-ray players at this point and it sounds like they may try to pull a sour grapes by focusing on HD video downloads instead. Which is fine as some folks are predicting that as being the Next Big Thing sure to make Blu-ray’s time at the top a short one.

Death watch for HD-DVD in full swing.

Update: Gizmodo is reporting that Wal-Mart will be dropping HD-DVD in June. That’s pretty much it for HD-DVD then. Put a fork in it, it’s done. Wal-Mart is huge and losing them as an outlet is very bad indeed.

An article in The Hollywood Reporter says that rumors are swirling that Toshiba is poised to announce the death of HD-DVD in the coming weeks:

[…] Officially, no decision has been made, insists Jodi Sally, vp of marketing for Toshiba America Consumer Products. “Based on its technological advancements, we continue to believe HD DVD is the best format for consumers, given the value and consistent quality inherent in our player offerings,” she said.

But she hinted that something’s in the air. “Given the market developments in the past month,” she said, “Toshiba will continue to study the market impact and the value proposition for consumers, particularly in light of our recent price reductions on all HD DVD players.”

[…] But in the end, sources say, the substantial loss Toshiba is incurring with each HD DVD player sold—a figure sources say could be as high as several hundred dollars—coupled with a series of high-profile retail defections has driven the company to at last concede defeat.

“An announcement is coming soon,” said one source close to the HD DVD camp. “It could be a matter of weeks.”

I found it particularly amusing that in that article they had an ad promoting a contest where you predict who will win an Oscar in hopes of winning, among other things, a Blu-ray player. As for HD-DVD it’s looking more and more like it’s death is inevitable. Netflix just switched to being Blu-ray exclusive and Best Buy announced that, while they’ll continue to sell HD-DVD to folks who want it, they’d be promoting Blu-ray as the format of choice. Even smaller independent studios such as anime-importer ADV Films have gone Blu-ray only.

Netflix to drop HD-DVD, go Blu-ray only for HD.

Toshiba’s been trying to stay in the fight by slashing prices on HD-DVD players, but more and more companies are announcing their plans to drop HD-DVD and support Blu-ray exclusively with the folks at Netflix being the latest:

Netflix has stocked DVDs using both Blu-ray and the competing HD DVD format developed by Toshiba Corp since they first came on the market in early 2006.

Four out of six major Hollywood studios have recently decided to publish high-definition DVDs only using Blu-ray.

Netflix said that with such a clear signal from the industry, it will only buy Blu-ray discs going forward and will phase out stock of HD DVD by about the end of the year.

Make that one more nail in HD-DVD’s coffin.

Best Blu-ray DVD player? The future proof PS3.

Now that it looks like HD-DVD is in for a slow death some of you may be wondering which of the various Blu-ray players is the best one to buy. According to the folks at ArsTechnica.com you should seriously consider Sony’s PS3:

New Blu-ray 2.0 spec makes PS3 the most future-proof player – ArsTechnica.com

Before we can understand why the PlayStation 3 is able to so easily deal with new profiles, we must first look at the difference between the 1.0, 1.1, and 2.0 profiles to see why a simple firmware update isn’t enough to make a player compliant.

  • 1.0 is the launch profile, and secondary audio and video decoders are optional, as is local storage and network connectivity. The majority of standalone players fit into this category.
  • 1.1 is the newer profile, and to take advantage of these discs, players need a secondary audio and video decoder to handle picture-in-picture, as well as at least 256MB of local storage for content.
  • 2.0 is the profile of the future, requiring the two secondary decoders, 1GB of local storage for updates and content, and an Internet connection.

HD DVD players have included networking as standard since the beginning, but Blu-ray has not, and the evolving standard may become a large problem for early adopters. The 2.0 profile actually changes the minimum requirements for full compatibility. In other words, there is only one player currently on the market that will be 2.0 compatible: the PlayStation 3, which, with its upgradeable hard drive, Ethernet port, and powerful graphics capabilities, will be able to adapt to any and all future updates. This is quite the slap in the face to consumers who paid several hundred dollars for players that won’t be to be updated to take advantage of the 1.1 profile, much less the upcoming 2.0

Of course this only really matters if you give a shit about having the extra features that the 1.1 and 2.0 profiles bring with them. The Internet connectivity of profile 2.0 seems like another PR gimmick more than anything else. There have been interactive DVDs for ages now that would connect to the Internet and download all sorts of extra stuff when you played them on your PC, but how many folks really take advantage of that feature? I think I did it once just to see what all the hype was about and the extra content was less than overwhelming. So much so that I’ve never felt the need to try it on any of the other DVD’s I own with that ability. From what I’ve seen of the plans for this feature in profile 2.0 I’m not at all certain I’d ever make use of it. I suppose it’s always possible they’ll come up with new uses that might make it worth checking out, but so far I’m not worried about it.

Then there’s the Picture-in-Picture feature in profile 1.1 that looks like it’ll be used to do pop-up style commentaries or bonus footage of how a scene was filmed while you’re playing the movie and I imagine there are folks out there who will find that useful, but I’ve never been one much for interrupting a movie I’m watching for that sort of thing. I generally go back later and watch that stuff separately so even if the PS3 didn’t support it it wouldn’t be a big deal to me. Again, it’s not a deal breaker in my book.

Still if you’re the sort who wants to have all the bells and whistles then the PS3 is probably the best Blu-ray player to consider as upgrades are just a firmware update away. I’d tend to think that so long as the early adopter’s 1.0 profile machines continue to playback Blu-ray discs just fine, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t, then the omission of the extra bells and whistles of profile 2.0 won’t be a big deal for most of them. Of course the other bonus to buying a PS3 for Blu-ray is it just happens to be a pretty kick-ass game console and media hub as well.

Meanwhile at the headquarters for the HD-DVD camp…

… the leaders are meeting to discuss their plans to take over the world!

Maybe it’s just me, but I found that funny as hell.

Special thanks to SEB reader S.C. for sending that via email!

Paramount “poised” to switch from HD-DVD to Blu-ray.

It’s hasn’t officially happened yet, but the Financial Times is reporting that Paramount is poised to jump ship from HD-DVD exclusivity to Blu-ray:

Paramount and DreamWorks Animation, which makes the Shrek films, came out in support of HD DVD last summer, joining General Electric&#xu2;019s Universal Studios as the main backers of the Toshiba format.

However, Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, is understood to have a clause in its contract with the HD DVD camp that would allow it to switch sides in the event of Warner Bros backing Blu-ray, according to people familiar with the situation.

Paramount is set to have a bumper 2008 with several likely blockbusters, including the latest instalment in the Indiana Jones franchise.

If Paramount and Dreamworks do jump ship then you may as well stick a fork in HD-DVD ‘cause it’s done. That said the folks at Samsung think that HD-DVD could live on in the PC storage market:

On the Hollywood front, he believes that the Warner announcement was a tipping point. In short, Blu-ray will win. But! HD DVD doesn’t have to slink into a grave next to Betamax yet. It will become the chosen format for “private” (that is, personal) content because the format—ahem, Toshiba and Microsoft—has a stronghold in the PC drive market. He expects Toshiba to really concentrate on the PC HD DVD market since it’s deader than disco if it loses there.

The format war ends. The “divide” begins. And it’ll be even bigger, in a sense.

Upswing: Samsung’s going to be keep pumping out dual-format players, so that people can easily watch the personal stuff and the Hollywood stuff on the same deck. “Most people…don’t care about what format is most popular,” says Jun.

It’s not like that’s unheard of. Despite losing the home video tape market to VHS, Betamax went on to be the standard of choice for commercial video production such as your local news crew. Don’t know how many people are going to prefer burning HD-DVDs of their home videos over Blu-ray, but there’s applications it could be used for.

The High Def format wars heat up.

***Dave writes over on his blog about the recent announcement from Warner Bros. to switch from supporting both HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats to exclusively Blu-ray. This has caused quite a stir in the high definition enthusiast crowd because up until this announcement the two formats appeared to be at a stalemate. HD-DVD is exclusively backed by Universal Studios (and its subsidiaries), Paramount Pictures (ditto), and The Weinstein Company (also ditto). Blu-ray has exclusivity with Sony Pictures Entertainment, MGM (which Sony partially owns), Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Lionsgate. Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema were supporting both formats, but both have announced that they are switching to the Blue-ray camp:

“Warner Bros.’ move to exclusively release in the Blu-ray disc format is a strategic decision focused on the long term and the most direct way to give consumers what they want,” said Meyer. “The window of opportunity for high-definition DVD could be missed if format confusion continues to linger. We believe that exclusively distributing in Blu-ray will further the potential for mass market success and ultimately benefit retailers, producers, and most importantly, consumers.”

Warner Home Video will continue to release its titles in standard DVD format and Blu-ray. After a short window following their standard DVD and Blu-ray releases, all new titles will continue to be released in HD DVD until the end of May 2008. “Warner Bros. has produced in both high-definition formats in an effort to provide consumer choice, foster mainstream adoption and drive down hardware prices,” said Jeff Bewkes, President and Chief Executive Officer, Time Warner Inc., the parent company of Warner Bros. Entertainment. “Today’s decision by Warner Bros. to distribute in a single format comes at the right time and is the best decision both for consumers and Time Warner.”

“A two-format landscape has led to consumer confusion and indifference toward high definition, which has kept the technology from reaching mass adoption and becoming the important revenue stream that it can be for the industry,” said Tsujihara. “Consumers have clearly chosen Blu-ray, and we believe that recognizing this preference is the right step in making this great home entertainment experience accessible to the widest possible audience. Warner Bros. has worked very closely with the Toshiba Corporation in promoting high definition media and we have enormous respect for their efforts. We look forward to working with them on other projects in the future.”

It didn’t take long before New Line confirmed they’d do the same. The announcement came just days before the start of the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show and as a result the press conference the HD-DVD folks had scheduled has been canceled:

Based on the timing of the Warner Home Video announcement today, we have decided to postpone our CES 2008 press conference scheduled for Sunday, January 6th at 8:30 p.m. in the Wynn Hotel. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

We are currently discussing the potential impact of this announcement with the other HD DVD partner companies and evaluating next steps. We believe the consumer continues to benefit from HD DVD’s commitment to quality and affordability – a bar that is critical for the mainstream success of any format.

Additional Toshiba, one of the companies that developed HD-DVD, put out a press release expressing their disappointment with Warner Bros. and subtly suggesting they might sue:

TOKYO, Jan. 4 /PRNewswire/—Toshiba is quite surprised by Warner Bros.’ decision to abandon HD DVD in favor of Blu-ray, despite the fact that there are various contracts in place between our companies concerning the support of HD DVD. As central members of the DVD Forum, we have long maintained a close partnership with Warner Bros. We worked closely together to help standardize the first-generation DVD format as well as to define and shape HD DVD as its next-generation successor.

We were particularly disappointed that this decision was made in spite of the significant momentum HD DVD has gained in the US market as well as other regions in 2007. HD DVD players and PCs have outsold Blu-ray in the US market in 2007.

We will assess the potential impact of this announcement with the other HD DVD partner companies and evaluate potential next steps. We remain firm in our belief that HD DVD is the format best suited to the wants and needs of the consumer.

While it’s true that the HD-DVD hardware had been outselling Blu-ray for awhile, Blu’s been picking up steam through the fourth quarter despite its hardware being more expensive than HD-DVD. You can get a Toshiba HD-DVD player for around $159 whereas Blu-ray players start at $229 and go up. As of December 10, 2007 the number of players for both formats stood at around 2.7 million Blu-ray players and 700,000 HD DVD players. The interesting thing is that 74% (roughly 2 million) of those Blu-ray players are in the form of the Playstation 3.

Warner says it was sales over the holidays that convinced them to make the switch. Nielsen/VideoScan reports that on Black Friday some 72.6% of all high def DVD sales were Blu-ray compared to 27.4% of HD-DVD. The clincher was the month of December during which Blu-ray players outsold HD-DVD players in spite of costing almost $100 more—Toshiba even had a special $99 price on some of their HD-DVD players at Wal-Mart—and Blu-ray discs outsold HD-DVD 2 to 1.

The announcement was a big enough deal to make the New York Times wonder if Warner Bros. just killed HD-DVD:

Richard Greenfield, the media analyst with Pali Research, wrote that this marks the end of the format wars: “We expect HD DVD to ‘die’ a quick death.” He noted that NBC Universal has not committed to backing HD DVD exclusively. Viacom’s studios — Paramount and Dreamworks — have an exclusive deal with the backers of HD DVD, but Mr. Greenfield wonders if there is an escape clause.

Mr. Greenfield further wonders if consumers, on hearing this news, will return their Christmas HD DVD players and exchange them for Blu-ray devices. I’m not so sure that many people pay that close attention to Hollywood. But I certainly wouldn’t spend money on an HD DVD player until this all sorts out.

Personally I wasn’t cheering for either format in particular as I don’t have a HDTV. I’m only in the Blu-ray camp because I own a PS3 and I figured if Blu-ray comes out on top then I’m already set with a PS3, but if HD-DVD ended up king then I’d eventually spring for one of its players in the future. As long as I have the PS3 then I’ll buy Blu-ray movies in anticipation of the day I do get an HDTV. The consensus on the gadget blogs I’ve been visiting is that this signals the death of HD-DVD and Warner themselves said the move was an attempt to finally bring the format wars to an end. I don’t know if that’s what will happen or not, but I wouldn’t be upset one way or the other.

Still, it’ll be interesting to see what the next move from the HD-DVD camp will be. I imagine we’ll likely hear something before the end of CES or sometime shortly there after. In the meantime kick back, pop up some popcorn, and watch the fireworks fly.