Over at the Robb Report web site, Geoffrey Morrison has an excellent write-up on Mitsubishi's introduction of its much ballyhooed Laser TV technology. What surprised me (and definitely diluted the "cool factor") is that Laser TV is just a rear-projection DLP with a seemingly more futuristic light source:
A regular DLP based rear-projection TV has a lamp (think light bulb) that creates the light. This light is focused down and shown through a rotating color filter wheel. Single chip DLP systems, like what is found in RPTVs, create sequential color. That is to say, at any given moment, only one color is on the screen. Because these colors change rapidly, your eye and brain blur them together so you see a full color image...
Using lasers as the light source simplifies this process. Three lasers, red, green, and blue, are expanded to fill the DMD chip. The color is still sequential, but the lasers can turn on and off faster than any color wheel, so the "rainbow" effect should be unnoticeable. Removing many of the lenses in the light path makes the light engine less expensive to produce, as well as more efficient. A less powerful light source can be used to create the same amount of brightness.
It's interesting to see the significant commitment Mitsubishi is making to Laser TV, especially when the tide seems to be definitively moving away from rear-projection form factors to flat panels. Still, as Morrison notes, there is a definite bang-for-buck consumer benefit for rear-projection HDTVs, and perhaps with Sony, Hitachi and others exiting this market segment this will turn out to be good, near-term business for Mitsubishi.
But with Laser TV sales roughly 6 months off into the future, it's likely that the anti-rear-projection mindset will spread to more HDTV buyers. In the end, it may be that Laser TV may have to settle for a niche in the front projection market.
But the best part of Morrison's article is his concise and convincing explanation of how Mitsubishi's "Twice the Color" marketing blather is not just hype, but hype that actually torpedoes picture quality:
Most modern displays are capable of reproducing all the colors available in the HDTV signal. Many are designed to reproduce more than that, creating "oversaturated" colors. In a store, these displays seem to have lots of color, and often get purchased over displays with more accurate colors. What happens is green grass is really green. Red apples are almost candy red. Again, perhaps not a big deal for the average consumer, but for those looking for a display that just shows what is in the original material ("as the director intended") this oversaturation of color is an artifact.
The problem, in effect, is in the signal. As good as HDTV is, it doesn't have the ability to encode all the colors that the human eye can see. New technologies, such as xvYCC aim to expand this limited color palette, but these are a long way away (if ever). This is because every step in the chain, from the transfer, to the encoding, to the decoding, to the transmission, to the display, all need to be xvYCC in order for it to work. Right now the only steps that are xvYCC are the display and the Blu-ray player (if you're lucky). So it's a useless feature at the moment.
The web is abuzz today with news of a Strategy Analytics research report that predicts there will be more than 29 million Blu-ray players in consumer hands by the end of this year.
That sounds like it should be good news for anyone with a stake in the success of the Blu-ray format. But the fact is, the very report that paints such a rosy future for Blu-ray raises some serious concerns about that seemingly guaranteed success. I'll explain below why I think the Blu-ray glass is half empty, but first here's the key predictions from the Business Wire press release:
The Blu-ray Disc victory in its recent format war with HD-DVD will propel this technology into 29.4 million homes worldwide by the end of 2008, according to the latest research published by the Strategy Analytics Connected Home Devices service...
...[The] report predicts that global sales of Blu-ray devices will reach 18.8 million units in 2008, including 4 million stand-alone players, 13 million consoles and nearly 2 million PCs. By 2012, annual sales of all BD devices will reach 57.4 million units. The largest market will be in Europe, with 26.4 million, followed by the US (22.6 million) and Japan (8.4 million).
The elephant in the room here is the lopsided contribution that PlayStation3 game consoles are expected to continue to make to overall Blu-ray sales in 2008 -- approximately 7 out of every 10 new "Blu-ray players" to be sold in 2008 year are expected to be disguised as PlayStation 3 gaming consoles.
Make no mistake -- I really admire the PS3 "Trojan Horse" strategy and its critical role in forcing Toshiba and HD DVD off the battlefield. But that strategy doesn't make the cut as an end game. After all, the real value of the mythical Trojan Horse wasn't the deadly firepower of those hidden inside -- it was their ability to quietly open the fortress gates from within to allow entry to a larger invading force.
Taking this Illiad-inspired metaphor to the next step, you might say that Sony is having a really tough time on the enlistment front.
But just as unsettling is the idea that PCs with BD drives, a relatively new product category, will account for 2 million sales units, while sales of traditional, single-purpose dics players with Blu-ray technology will amount to a measly 4 million sales units.
When you add it all up, nearly 80% of 2008 "Blu-ray" sales are actually products that are first and foremost something other than a device designed to watch a Blu-ray movie. Strategy Analytics actually predicts that standalone Blu-ray players will be the main contributor for Blu-ray sales from 2009 onward, but no further details are available in the press release and the full text of the research report is only available by subscription.
It hard to see what's going to propel this fundamental change in fortunes for Blu-ray, seemingly overnight. Hopefully Strategy Analytics or Sony have the magic formula in hand.
AppleInsider recently reported on a patent filing by Apple Inc. that indicates the company may be planning to add DVR capabilities to its slow-to-gain-traction Apple TV product:
A series of Apple patent filings published this week reveal a version of the Apple TV media device capable of browsing and recording live television programming in addition to serving up pre-aired content from the company's iTunes Store.
Originally filed back in October of 2006, the filings clearly show considerable work on the part of the electronics maker to create an alternative to products like the TiVo digital video recorder (DVR), complete with a searchable on-screen guide and configurable touch-based remote control device that would serve as a portable program guide.
While I don't own any type of Apple product, I believe that a DVR product infused with Apple's world-class design and usability expertise could be an interesting and welcome addition to the DVR marketplace. TiVo seems to get all the media and online praise when it comes to DVRs, but I always felt that TiVo sacrificed utility and power in favor of ease of use. In effect, TiVo panders to the technophobic and gives short shrift to more savvy consumers.
So, it would be interesting to see how Apple might tilt the balance toward the DVR power user, without leaving the casual user in the dust -- it seems to me that this is what Apple does best.
But I suspect that the chances of Apple actually delivering a mainstream DVR product are close to zero. The best DVRs are joined at the hip to a content delivery system, as evidenced by the fact that TiVo's brightest moments -- both financially and from a product realization standpoint -- occurred during its partnership with DirecTV. It's little wonder that TiVo has struggled mightily since its relationship with DirecTV headed south.
Apart from the iPhone, Apple has no history of playing nice with others, and even a souped-up Apple TV with Apple-inspired DVR wizardry would be a non-starter if all it does is record and play back over-the-air TV and iTunes store content.
Still, it's interesting to ponder the possibilities...and I highly recommend checking out the complete AppleInsider article for the user interface illustrations.
ZDNet is reporting that a Columbia University professor has filed a complaint with the US International Trade Commission, claiming that several companies and related products, including Sony's Blu-ray technology, are infringing a patent she controls:
The U.S. International Trade Commission will launch an investigation into Sony and about 30 other companies on possible patent infringements related to Blu-ray disc players and other products.
The commission said Thursday on its Web site that the products involved are short-wavelength light-emitting diodes and laser diodes used in such electronics as handheld mobile devices, traffic lights, and high-definition DVD players.
The move is based on a complaint filed in February by Gertrude Neumark Rothschild, a Columbia University professor emeritus who is seeking to block imports into the United States of a range of products that she said were infringing her patent.
At this point it's impossible to know whether this complaint has any merit, or whether this will actually cause practical problems for Sony and the other companies named in the complaint. But this news fits a general trend, where patents are brandished like weapons, with more and more companies threatened with legal action in the hope of a quick and hefty payout. Some companies have even begun to build patent portfolios with the primary goal of creating a deterrent against patent warfare by competitors.
As an aside, I highly recommend the excellent Techdirt web site for anyone who's interested in really understanding the purpose and importance of patents and copyrights for society, and how recent legal and legislative developments are seriously undermining those ideals.
Broadband Reports is carrying a story this morning detailing a new policy that DirecTV will be imposing on customers who record pay-per-view programming via the company's DVRs:
DirecTV users tell us that the satellite provider has sent them an e-mail saying that effective April 15, DVR recordings of pay-per-view films will only be available for 24 hours after purchase. Apparently users who like to watch films over a few day span will be out of luck. Not exactly the smartest move from an industry that's keen to put a dent in piracy by offering a robust, consumer-friendly product. From DirecTV's website:
Effective April 15, 2008, DVR recordings of PPV movies will be available for 24 hours of unlimited viewing after purchase. Major movie studios have required that satellite and cable providers alike may no longer allow their customers to view these recordings for longer than 24 hours. During the 24 hour viewing period, you will continue to enjoy all of your DVR features such as pause and rewind.
It seems clear that Hollywood has completely lost any sense of proportionality and is determined to alienate paying customers through any and all of the substantial means at its disposal. There can be no logical rationalization for this sort of draconian measure, particularly after a customer has paid for a program he plans to view later. Why should the owner of the content care how long the recording program sits there prior to viewing? Or even if it's viewed hundreds of times before being deleted?
Does anyone really believe this is going to enhance sales or revenues of "protected" content?
It's news like this that makes me want to stand up and applaud when a company defeats Blu-ray's BD+ DRM less than 6 months after its rollout, particularly after some leading security experts estimated that it would take at least 10 years to crack BD+.
The bigger the target, the bigger the effort that will be undertaken to obliterate it.
Engadget is reporting that Best Buy is adopting a trade-in policy for Best Buy customers who previously purchased an HD DVD player from the retail giant:
Best Buy is following Future Shop, Circuit City and others in reaching out to casualties of the format war. In this case, anyone who bought an HD DVD player from Best Buy before February 23, 2008 can request a complimentary $50 gift card for each player. For those too traumatized to even look at their discontinued hardware and software, Best Buy also announced it's adding HD DVD players and media to its Trade-In Center program, starting March 21. No word on how much a player can net you, but once its updated, check BestBuyTradeIn.com to get an estimate and decide how much holding onto the past is worth.
Update: Best Buy just issued a press release with additional information about the more than $10 million in gift cards it plans to distribute, and details on how to make sure you get yours...
A couple of interesting wrinkles here. First off, Best Buy doesn't appear to be offering a full refund for HD DVD players, but unlike Circuit City they aren't requiring the customer to return the player. Second, it sounds like Best Buy is also accepting trade-ins for HD DVD discs, though it's not clear how much the discs will yield in terms of cash or trade-in-kind.
It's good to see Best Buy addressing the disappointment of customers who picked the wrong side in the HD Disc Format War. It's also interesting to see that they haven't merely copied the Circuit City policy and that they are providing a somewhat more flexible solution, though it's arguable that it's not as comprehensive as the Circuit City policy.
Engadget reports on Toshiba's exit from the HD DVD business and suggests the financial cost should dissuade other companies from entering into this sort of format battle in the future:
There are spicy meatballs, and there are spicy meatballs -- and now there's a figure that will be tossed around for decades to come, one which will instantly represent the caution companies should take when embarking on another format war: a billion dollars. At least that's what Nikkei is reporting that Toshiba's losses on HD DVD totaled in 2007 alone: a ¥100b, or about $982m USD. It won't drive Toshiba under or anything, but you seriously have to ask yourself, was it really all worth it?
Yes, a billion dollars is a lot of money, but some perspective is necessary here. The actual financial cost of Toshiba's foray into HD DVD is relatively minor in the overall scheme of things. A good illustration of that fact is that even after flushing nearly a billion dollars down the toilet, the company still produced an annual profit of $2.5 billion.
But the bigger point here is that you can't look at the billion dollar hit in isolation -- you have to take into account how much Toshiba might have made over then next decade if HD DVD had been the hit it hoped it would be.
It's ultimately about the risk AND the reward.
And there are "cost" factors other than money to consider. Even though Sony has successfully seen off the HD DVD challenge, it remains to be seen if Blu-ray can eventually attain the same level of consumer acceptance as DVD or VHS previously.
It's probably more important to the ultimate success of Blu-ray that the momentum lost as a result of consumer confusion and disaffection be recovered quickly now that Blu-ray stands alone. If that can't be accomplished, then the cost of the format war is much greater than the short-term health of one company's financial statement.
It's a little surprising that Australia, a country of only 20 million population, is the fourth largest national market for Pioneer Electronics. But that's what Pioneer Australia Managing Director Yasuo Sakuma claims in an interview that appeared at the Smarthouse web site on Wednesday -- and that lends a certain level of credibility to his comments about the future direction of the Japanese electronics company after last week's decision to shut down its plasma display manufacturing operations.
Sakuma noted that Pioneer will shift to Kuro-branded LCDs built by Sharp and new Kuro plasma panels built by Panasonic. He said Pioneer will continue to sacrifice volume for profitability.
Sakuma indicated that when Kuro LCDs roll out sometime late this year, they will be in the sub-50-inch range, with 32-, 42- and 46-inch models likely. On the plasma front, Sakuma indicated that Pioneer will continue to offer both 50- and 60-inch Kuro models.
"We have one of the best display engines in the world and our Kuro plasma display has won numerous awards because of this engine. Now we are working with both Panasonic and Sharp to transfer this technology into both our LCD TV's and our new thin plasma TV's. The Pioneer display engine is key to our success."
Sakuma also mentioned that Pioneer is considering establishing Pioneer-branded retail outlets, though for a company that seems hellbent on reducing costs and increasing margins, this would seem somewhat counterintuitive.
Gizmodo is reporting that Blu-ray player prices are on the rise:
I suppose that it is not all that surprising to find out that without competition from the HD DVDs camp, prices for Blu-ray players have gone up. According to data collected by Pricegrabber.com, Blu-ray players have hit a high average of $400 per unit for the year -- about the same price they were at this time last year. This comes after the aggressive price cuts Blu-ray manufacturers employed at the height of the HD DVD battle.
A spreadsheet screen grab accompanying the Gizmo news item shows that the Samsung BD-P1400 player is now selling at $374, versus a low of $301 on January 10, with similar increases shown for the Sony BDP-S300, now selling at $403, versus $307 at the 2008 low (Jan 1); the Sharp BD-HP20U at $440, versus a low of $325 (Feb 15); and the Panasonic DMP-BD30K at $480, versus a low of $401 (Jan 1).
The data at the Gizmodo site (via Pricegrabber) also shows that the LG BH200 combo Blu-ray/HD DVD player debuted at $999 on January 1, bottomed out at $599 on February 1 and now sells at $666.
While Gizmodo is correct about the price increase resulting from a sudden vacuum of competition, there's another angle here that should be beneficial to consumers over the medium to long haul. Rising prices for Blu-ray players are likely to encourage increased manufacturer support for Blu-ray, resulting in a greater variety of players and performance levels.
All consumers appreciate falling prices, but sometimes it's good for prices to go up in the short term, as it gives manufacturers an incentive to pay more attention to a market, with the likely long-term result being broader choice over a wider range of price points.
In fact, the beginning of the end for the HD DVD format occurred precisely at the moment that Toshiba began aggressively slashing HD DVD player prices, as it guaranteed there would be reduced manufacturer interest in the format. Since Toshiba was virtually alone in building HD DVD hardware to begin with, there was little chance that any other manufacturer would support HD DVD when prices dipped to under $200 and eventually went as low as $99 prior to Toshiba tossing in the towel.
Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis today said his company has the capacity to offer more than 150 High-Definition channels.
That's according to an article by Dow Jones News Service.
The wire service reports that Angelakis made the remark while addressing the Bear Stearns Media Conference in Palm Beach, Florida.
Comcast now offers less than 40 HD channels in every market, with some systems getting as few as 25-30. But Angelakis said "not every HD channel deserves to be in HD, and there are lots of HD channels that aren't watched very much."
This is also a good example of why Fortune 500 CFOs should leave marketing spin to the marketing experts.
Hot on the heels of news that Circuit City may in fact be offering up a hush-hush trade-in program for HD DVD purchasers comes official word that said retailer is tripling its standard return window in order to appease early adopters. According to company spokesman Jim Babb, it's looking to "take care of [its] customers" by lengthening the return window from 30 to 90 days for all HD DVD player purchases. When returning the unit, users are given store credit...
I have to rate Circuit City's actions here as an extremely savvy way of building customer loyalty. Although there's no doubt a financial cost to Circuit City for taking on this policy, the impact, in view of the relatively small number of HD DVD players sold to date, should pay off in multiples in a fairly short time.
The question now becomes, will we see Best Buy and Wal-Mart, along with the major regionals, adopting similar policies? If that's going to happen, we should know in a few days.
I still think this is something that Sony should be doing on a top-down basis, as the company and the Blu-ray format are both in need of positive PR. But as it stands now, it's looking like this will go down as an opportunity missed for the slumbering electronics giant.