Triumph and Turmoil In High Definition
The electronics industry found itself in an odd situation at the 40th annual Consumer Electronics Show. It is succeeding spectacularly at something that seemed borderline impossible at the start of the decade -- making high-definition TV a mass-market product.
Remember when a plasma TV cost $10,000 and was something we saw only in an ad on a crummy analog tube TV? Now it's a $1,000 item you can pick up in any electronics store. Has any other manufactured product gotten that cheap over the past six years?
As HDTV prices have plunged off a cliff, to the delight of consumers who have bought them by the millions, quality and features have continued to improve.
But the same companies responsible for this success have botched the other half of the high-definition experience: what people watch on their HDTVs when they're not tuning into an on-air, cable or satellite signal.
For most people, the sole source of high-def entertainment is a cable or satellite box, perhaps one that includes a digital video recorder. They can watch live TV and save it for later viewing (although they usually can't take that recorded video anywhere else); sometimes, they can buy from a limited selection of video-on-demand titles.
Blame the limited capabilities of most cable and satellite boxes on the tight control that cable and satellite operators can exercise over anything that plugs into their signals -- other companies can find themselves shut out, as Federal Communications Commission members Kevin J. Martin and Deborah Taylor Tate discussed with such exhibitors as Hitachi, Intel and Digeo this week.
The logical addition to this scenario would be a way to watch recorded movies in high-definition -- a high-def flavor of the DVD, in other words.
The industry thought that was such a good idea that it did it twice, setting off the squabble between the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats that has simmered since 2003. The only real news about it at this year's CES came in two attempts to save the electronics business from itself.
LG Electronics revealed a combination player that can read both formats and will go on sale for $1,199 next month. Warner Home Video announced that it would sell movies as hybrid "Total Hi Def" discs containing Blu-ray and HD DVD copies of the same title. (Note that building-in support for two formats, not just one, can often compound the cost and complexity of a product.)
But most companies responsible for this mess only continued their sniping. People on each side swore that they would be the sole survivor, while the other would be exiled to the same Land of Misfit Toys as Betamax, MiniDisc, Digital Compact Cassette and other past misadventures in consumer electronics.