Visiting London for the launch of the European HD DVD Promotional Group, Microsoft's director of HD DVD Evangelism Kevin Collins explained why Microsoft threw its weight behind HD DVD, what makes it a better format and why Blu-ray hasn't won the war by his reckoning.
"There will be 600 HD DVD titles available worldwide in 2007," says Collins. "The reason I say worldwide is there's no region control on HD DVD - consumers love this."
Disney did bring a request to the steering committee to add region control to HD DVD, but Collins says "it hasn't gone anywhere" and he doesn't believe it ever will. Many of the other 20 companies on the steering committee actively oppose region coding, and it can't be added to players already sold.
On the PC front, HD DVD is flying. Collins points out that 70 per cent of slim HD drives for laptops sold in 2006 were HD DVD and only 30 per cent were Blu-ray. Meanwhile, Toshiba has announced that there are well over a million HD DVD players in the world - there should be around 2.5 million worldwide by the end of this year.
Driving down prices
Of course, those millions of buyers are still early adopters. Collins expects drives from Chinese manufacturers, and the reference board Microsoft and Broadcom announced at CES, to drive down the cost of players and increase sales.
"To move from a niche market to the mass market, price will be very important," says Collins. "We get to the $299 price point and HD DVD starts taking off." Until prices come down, combo discs allow consumers to get new films to play on DVD now and enjoy on HD DVD later; one clear advantage over Blu-ray, he says. Another is interactivity.
"While there are a lot of movies that are Blu-ray only in the US and HD DVD elsewhere, there are zero movies that are HD DVD and going to Blu-ray for the US. Why wouldn't they go with Blu-ray if all the features are so much better?"
Collins is keen to show off the features that make HD DVD titles outshine their Blu-ray rivals. In a short demonstration, he loads up the same film ( The Guardian), first on an HD DVD player and then on a Blu-ray-playing PS3, and opening the menu. On the HD DVD title the menu slides up onto the screen; there's no animation on the Blu-ray version, there's no button on the menu for changing settings, no timeline and no way to add bookmarks for your favourite scenes.
The Blu-ray version has Dolby Digital audio but the HD DVD title has Dolby Digital Plus. The HD DVD version is also a combo disc that you can play in a standard DVD player.
Next he switches to a Samsung Blu-ray player and chooses the interactive features; the screen shows a progress bar, then another progress bar and even when the menu loads it scrolls slowly. He picks the film-maker's commentary and we sit through the sequence of progress bars again - only to get an error message referring us to the Blu-ray Web site and saying the content won't work on our player.
Only premium Blu-ray players have the extra hardware that's in every HD DVD player: a secondary video decoder for picture in picture commentaries and storyboards, storage so you can save bookmarks and clips of your favourite scenes and a network connection so you can upload those clips to share with friends or download extra content.
It's all about the features
Microsoft didn't come up with the list of mandatory features for HD DVD players, says Collins, the studios did.
"They didn't believe just having high definition video was going to be enough to compel consumers to ditch DVD and buy into a new format." To get us to adopt a new standard, Collins says the studios wanted high definition video, high definition audio and immersive interactivity. With analogue connections in most AV receivers and decoding for Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and PCM built in to HD DVD, he predicts "a large percentage of people can get HD audio without purchasing anything else."