Toshiba finally mercy-killed its HD-DVD format last week, ending a drawn-out fight with Sony’s Blu-ray for high-definition disc supremacy. The format’s demise has brought HD-DVD owners untold humiliation: reams of newspaper stories comparing them to the losers of yore who bought into Betamax and LaserDisc, the sad sight of desperate early adopters peddling brand-new players on Craigslist, and, worst of all, a Web site celebrating the similarities between HD-DVD and Hillary Clinton. I’m sick of the mockery and abuse. You see, I’m one of the morons who bought an HD-DVD player.
While I freely admit my moronitude, I still believe the HD-DVD owner is an unfairly maligned creature. It wasn’t dumb to jump on the HD-DVD bandwagon: Toshiba’s technology was cheaper and more consumer-friendly than Sony’s. It was dumb, though, to assume that the forces of good would triumph. In the end, the fight between Sony and Toshiba played out like some kind of bizarro sports movie: The bad guy won at the end by clocking the lovable underdog in the crotch with a baseball bat.
In retrospect, it might’ve been smarter not to buy either player. But alas, I have a strange affliction that left me susceptible to HD-DVD’s limited charms: I’m a gadget-loving cheapskate. The typical early adopter opens his wallet first and asks questions later; he doesn’t care how many gigs of RAM are inside the MacBook Air, just that it slides into a Manila envelope. The HD-DVD player, however, appealed to a different group, electronics fetishists too imprudent to wait out a format war yet stingy enough to base their purchasing decisions entirely on price. Of course, this is an irrational position, like signing up for the inaugural commercial flight to the moon but only paying for a coach-class ticket. But that’s how my brain works—I have a Creative Zen Micro, not an iPod.
My HD-DVD delusion began, as so many gizmo-induced fevers do, in the run-up to Black Friday. Like most Americans, I spent my Thanksgiving Day scouring online message boards for rebate coupons. Following a brief flirtation with an off-brand digital picture frame, I fell in love with another shiny object: an HD-DVD player (with seven free discs!) for only $149.50. Never has a piece of electronics equipment looked more alluring: I love high-definition TV, and this was a new, exciting, cheap way to pour HD goodness into my living room. Seriously, seven free discs!
But what about that format war? After three minutes of research on Engadget and Gizmodo, I decided this was clearly going to be a war of attrition. While Sony had the lead in disc sales, Paramount and DreamWorks had both announced they would release titles only on HD-DVD. Since a) neither side looked ready to budge, and b) I have no impulse control, it was time to make a decision. Blu-ray discs can hold more data than HD-DVDs, and more studios were behind Sony’s format. Still, Sony never had a chance to get my business. Wasn’t it my duty as a shopper to back the cheapest option? For the $377 that Circuit City was charging for a Blu-ray machine, I could’ve bought two of Toshiba’s players (14 free discs!) and had enough money left over to buy a Walkman and a rotary phone. I was casting my lot with HD-DVD. What could possibly go wrong?
In the first carefree days, all was bliss. I put on my first free disc, The Bourne Identity, and went into a reverie. A standard-def DVD creates a flat image on a screen. An HD disc gives the image weight, texture, depth, verisimilitude—in a tight shot of a knife slicing through Jason Bourne’s wetsuit, you see a real blade cutting through real fabric. A few days later, the BBC nature documentary Planet Earth came via Netflix. If Bourne is a gateway drug, Planet Earth is hi-def heroin—the most transfixing collection of moving images I’ve ever seen. I watched great whites breaching, snow leopards hunting, and birds of paradise preening for about an hour, then went to Amazon and bought the whole series for $70. For weeks, I forced all visitors to sit down and watch, building up the experience like it was looking into the face of God. Nobody was disappointed.
The good times didn’t last. On the eve of January’s Consumer Electronics Show, Warner Bros., which has the largest library of any home-video retailer, signed an exclusive pact with Blu-ray. With disc sales declining, Warner’s president said, the company needed to “erase consumer and retailer confusion over dueling DVD formats.” Warner’s defection put five of the seven major Hollywood studios on Team Blu-ray. Just like that, nobody seemed to care that HD-DVD and Blu-ray movies looked and sounded pretty much the same or that Toshiba’s players were way cheaper than their Sony counterparts. No, this war ended in the most annoying way possible—with a bunch of mega-corporations telling gadget buyers they didn’t care which format was better. They just wanted it to be over.
At this point, Toshiba turned to a strategy that industry experts call “denial.” After admitting he was “disappointed” with the Warner Bros. announcement, a Toshiba exec added, “Sales of HD-DVD were very good last year.” This was a bit like the scene in The Naked Gun where Lt. Frank Drebin stands before an exploding fireworks factory and shouts, “Nothing to see here!” In the succeeding weeks, every entity that’s capable of writing up a press release—Netflix, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, the nomadic tribesmen of Outer Mongolia—announced it was going Blu.
As these HD-DVD disavowals hit the Web, I got sad (“This blows”), then mad. (“This blows!”) All of these companies had been too lily-livered to pick between HD-DVD and Blu-ray when it could’ve made a difference; instead of having the guts to make up their own minds, they let Warner Bros. tell them what to do. Even worse, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and BusinessWeek reported that Sony, perhaps having learned its lesson from the Betamax debacle, paid Warner Bros. between $400 million and $500 million to go with Blu-ray. Sony hadn’t won because it offered the HD-buying public any other tangible advantage. It took down Toshiba because it knew whom to pay off.
In three short months, I was screwed by every cog in the gadget-industrial complex. The tech blogs convinced me that the format war would drag on for years. Sony pulled sketchy backroom deals behind my back. Netflix cut off my HD disc rentals. Even Toshiba did me dirty. Remember those seven free discs? Two of them (The Bourne Identity and 300) came with the player, but I had to mail in a UPC code to collect the other five. Perhaps the cereal-boxlike nature of this giveaway should’ve tipped me off that HD-DVD was the Frank Stallone of high-definition disc technology. Or maybe the pathetic list of available titles—The Hulk, Aeon Flux, Darkman—should’ve alerted me to Blu-ray’s back-catalog advantage. Anyway, the relevant point here is that I still haven’t received any of these terrible movies. You can keep them, Toshiba. I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who collects unplayable copies of Black Rain.
While nobody did me any favors along the way, I ultimately screwed myself. It was dumb to assume that HD-DVD’s cheapness would give it an advantage in the marketplace. Toshiba’s price-cutting sucked in a few idiots like me with HDTVs and (some) money to burn. Still, HD discs are such a niche product that undercutting Sony on price didn’t come close to making HD-DVD a mass-market product. Take comfort, landfill managers: The U.S. supply of stand-alone HD-DVD players is a measly 600,000, a microscopic total compared with the number of standard DVD players.
If there’s any consolation for us HD-DVD-buying losers, it’s that disc-shaped physical media won’t be around much longer. Once high-definition digital downloads, like those available through Apple TV, hit the mainstream, Blu-ray will be as dead as HD-DVD. Take that, Sony! In the meantime, I’ll console myself by watching hour upon hour of Planet Earth. And no, I’m not going to buy a Blu-ray player. Those things are too damn expensive.