Software giant Microsoft Corp. will team with computer chipmaker Intel Corp. to back one of two competing high-definition DVD formats, setting up a potential war with other major players in the industry. Sony Corp., Apple Computer Inc. and Dell Inc. all support a different format.
The split could kindle a redux of the Betamax-VHS video recorder debate two decades ago that held up the widespread distribution of VCRs and caused consumer confusion about the new product. Sony was a player in that format war, as well, manufacturing the smaller Betamax, which lost out to the larger VHS tape. VHS eventually became the standard, appearing in 90 percent of U.S. homes, while Betamax players have become an eBay curiosity.
Now, electronics makers and entertainment companies are racing to roll out the next generation of DVDs, which are advertised as having superior video and audio to current DVDs, as well as additional features. As sales of digital and high-definition television sets increase, entertainment and electronics makers are hoping that consumers will embrace the new discs, as well.
Microsoft and Intel are betting they can beat their rivals to market.
"This is not a matter of: When the gates open -- let's say, April 24, 2006 -- consumers will have this thing and that thing and sit there and be puzzled," said Blair Westlake, Microsoft's vice president for technology convergence. "It's a question of which one is there first and how compelling a proposition it is."
In an announcement planned for today, Microsoft and Intel will back a format called HD-DVD, shorthand for "high-definition DVD."
The rival format is called Blu-Ray, so named because it uses a blue-violet laser to read data from the disc, as opposed to the conventional red laser used in current DVD and CD players. Blu-Ray says its technology allows more data to be packed on discs. (HD-DVD also will be read by a blue-violet laser, and manufacturers say both discs will be playable in current DVD players.)
Backers of HD-DVD counter that their disc will hold sufficient data for consumer use and the cost will be lower than that of Blu-Ray. Yesterday, however, neither Microsoft nor Intel would guess how much HD-DVD discs would cost.
The concern to the consumer is that some movies, games and television shows will be available on one format but not on the other.
One of the key battlegrounds between formats, analysts say, is the lucrative video game market: Microsoft is pushing the HD-DVD format for its XBox game system, while Sony stands opposed with Blu-Ray and its market-leading PlayStation.