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Archives for : blu-ray

A Bit O’ Honey

Today’s announcement of the new features in Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) showed a feature I truly didn’t expect to see: support for HTTP Live Streaming.

Given Google’s decision to drop H.264 support from Chrome – a move that I denounced a few weeks back and would simply characterize here as batshit crazy – the idea of embracing HLS has to be seen as surprising, given that the MPEG codecs are the only commonly-used payloads in real-world HLS. The format could handle other payloads, but in practice, it’s all about the MP4s.

And that, of course, is because the target audience for HLS is iOS devices. Apple says they have an installed base of 160 million iOS devices out there now, and even the earliest iPhone can play an HLS stream. Moreover, App Store terms require the use of HLS for non-trivial streaming video applications. So there’s more and more content out there in this format. Android is wise to hop on this bandwagon, and opt in… unless of course they turn around and expect content providers to switch to WebM payloads (one would hope they’re not that dumb).

I don’t think I’d previously thought of the iOS base as a target for media providers, but found myself thinking: could the iOS base be bigger than Blu-Ray? A little searching shows it’s not even close: as of last Summer, Blu-Ray had a US installed base of just under 20 million, while iOS devices of all stripes number 40 million in the US (coincidentally making it the largest US mobile gaming platform as well). And while Blu-Ray had a good Christmas, iPad sales were insane.

Not every iOS user is going to stream video, and most content providers will need to develop custom apps to use the feature (Netflix, MLB, etc.), but those that do are already making big investments in the format. No wonder Google is opting in now… trying to get all the content providers to support an Android-specific format (other than Flash) would surely be a non-starter.

Now if Apple and the content providers could just work the kinks out…

JavaOne: Blu gets bluer

Well this is interesting. Looking at the JavaOne schedule builder, of five session cancellations in the last week, three are Interactive TV or Blu-Ray:

CANCEL TS-5507 Writing Portable TV Applications Friday
05/09/2008
Esplanade 302 1:30 PM 2:30 PM Thursday
05/01/2008
CANCEL TS-5888 Driving Innovation in Packaged Media (Blu-ray) User Experience Wednesday
05/07/2008
Gateway 104 1:30 PM 2:30 PM Thursday
05/01/2008
CANCEL TS-5888 Driving Innovation in Packaged Media (Blu-ray) User Experience Thursday
05/08/2008
Esplanade 305 1:30 PM 2:30 PM Thursday
05/01/2008

Anyone care to hazard a guess of what’s going on? Considering ITV and Blu-Ray had their own special day last year? I doubt it’s actually news-related, despite the report (noted at Daring Fireball) that Blu-Ray player sales are not impressive.

Actually, the news that will loom over JavaOne is Sun’s surprising 3Q loss, layoff announcements, and the pounding the stock has taken. To update an earlier stock comparison, Apple’s market cap is now 14 times Sun’s, up from eight when I last checked in December.

The rush to Blu-Ray

With Toshiba’s decision to abandon HD-DVD, the HD disc war ends with a victory for Blu-Ray. Lost in the “horse race” style reporting, however, is the fascinating truth behind the breakthroughs that led to this endgame.

The little-reported problem is that sales of regular DVDs actually declined in 2007, and are expected to fall further in 2008. Warner cited that as a reason for picking Blu-Ray, with an eye to ending the format war.

“We saw evidence that the format war was actually hurting standard definition,” [Warner Home Entertainment president Kevin] Tsujihara said. “The industry had very high expectations for the fourth quarter. The summer was the highest box office quarter in history. We ended up the year somewhere down 2 percent or a little bit more than 2 percent. That was a little disappointing, given the summer we had.”

As FORTUNE summarizes, “Consumers who bought HDTVs were so afraid of backing the wrong high-definition movie format that they decided not to buy movies at all.” And isn’t that a fascinating side-effect?

As a curious and highly debatable aside, Warner’s also claims high gas prices drove down DVD sales.

The other factor that seemingly has to come into effect here is that the studios have now released most of their back catalog, at least the viable parts of it, on DVD already. It’s genuinely hard to come up with a movie that’s not on DVD, harder still if it’s something that could actually make money (no fair saying The Day The Clown Cried). The Disney animated features, Star Wars, the Godfathers, and everything else that matters is already out, and you only get to make that money once, absurd repackaging notwithstanding. DVD also created a new market in television box sets, something that wasn’t practical with VHS (I once had two grocery sacks that contained episodes 1-60 of Robotech, two episodes per tape). But from here on out, the revenue potential for DVD seems to be limited to just the new movies that get home versions a few months after their theatrical runs.

Now here’s what I’m waiting to see. What’s the appetite going to be for buying all those movies again, in high-def? Particularly with upconverting players making standard-def discs look “pretty nice” on HDTV? Even though Blu-Ray’s quality is undeniably better than DVD, will it be enough to get people to buy entirely new players and software just a few years after adopting DVD? Blu-Ray offers more opportunities for extras, particularly given the capabilities of BD-J and the presence of internet connectivity in newer players, but is any software making genuine use of those features yet?

Maybe Blu-Ray’s competition was never HD-DVD, or even digital downloads (though those may take off… it’s just too early to tell). The real rival is actually the old DVD.

Tire kickers

This has been on my mind since the Java Mobile & Embedded Developer Days, which was going on at the same time as a Blu-Ray Disc Java (BD-J) event over in Barcelona. The parallel between the two is the existence of a frustrated group of developers, chafing at the restrictions on developing and deploying for the mobile and Blu-Ray platforms.

What kind of crystallizes it is a pair of messages on the Blu-Ray forum over on java.net, which I noticed on the day job. For background, consider this explanation from Sun’s Bill Foote about why the Blu-Ray culture is so different:

This is a really important thing to understand. The media industry,
and especially the optical disc/Hollywood/movie industry, is not the
same thing as the IT industry. Indeed, in many ways, they’re light-years
apart.

In terms of business culture, I personally think that the two will meet
somewhere in the middle. We’re already a whole bunch more open with
BD-J than was ever the case for legacy DVD, for example, but folks
coming from the IT or other more computer-science-y pursuits will
find some culture shocks along the way, too.

Unsurprisingly, most developers who’ve ever touched the web, or even the desktop, expect a high level of autonomy and freedom, something that they’re surprised to find absent on these private, committee-crafted platforms. Consider Bill Shepp’s BD-J forum message a few days later, in reply to a wide-eyed “everything should just be free and open” type plea:

Many of us agree, but for better or for worse some of the BDA Director companies take a far more cautious approach to the platform. We’re working to find a good compromise that makes developer information accessible to those with a bona fide interest without lowering the bar so far that tire-kickers clog up the system…

That spawned a quick counter from Endre Stølsvik:

When did tire-kickers become a problem, I have to ask? Have anyone of
the BDA Director companies that have this opinion had a look at the open
source scene at all? Tire-kickers are often the ones that start new
stuff. If something starts, and it is good, others will chip in, and
soon enough you will have a really good thing going. Stupid stuff, or
really bad stuff, dies all by itself.

Unsurprisingly, I think Endre’s right. But there’s more to it than that.

I don’t think it matters.

Here’s the key premise: the idea of reaching out to developers is to get a high quantity and quality of apps on your platform, preferably innovative apps that will give your platform a unique appeal.

Now, does Blu-Ray really need that? For all the shirt-puffing expounding about amazing next-generation features that you might find in the format’s PR and white papers, the fact is that very few customers are going to be motivated by a message about the “potential” for “innovation” in the format. For every one person who’s inspired by the cool BD-J apps that might come out some day, another 99,999 just want to know which high-def format has Harry Potter and The Little Mermaid.

Even with the format war seemingly won, it’s not like Blu-Ray couldn’t use a little help convincing people it’s better than sticking with DVDs (or just waiting for HD digital downloads). At the MEDDs, the presenter for Blu-Ray was surprisingly candid in admitting that most Blu-Ray titles right now use the simpler HDMV mode for authoring their interactive features than BD-J. Worse, she showed off a demo. Two years into Blu-Ray’s general availability, the BD-J apps are not amazing internet enhanced media experiences, but trite arcade games. The demo consisted of the menuing for War (yawn) and a 2D Surf’s Up pinball game that might not pass muster with the superior Flash-based games on the Candystand site. I can’t imagine the salespeople at Fry’s are going to move a lot of Blu-Ray players with that as their essential feature.

But like I said, I don’t think it matters. Whatever the potential of BD-J, the trade association behind it has a narrow view of what they want to do with the technology, so even if it might be well suited for educational video, commercial uses (industrial training, direct marketing), etc., it’s fated not to be used that way. Apparently, the BDA thinks it will make all the money it needs by selling us our favorite movies again. And they may be right.

But that makes the outreach to developers at these Java conference so strange. The message is like “get excited about Blu-Ray… but no, you can’t have an SDK.” With only a handful of studios putting out Blu-Ray discs, and many of them using HDMV, there can’t be that great a need for BD-J developers. Or, more accurately, there can’t be that many positions total… even though there might be high demand for those few positions, assuming Java-savvy media programmers for resource-constrained environments are a rare find.

It gets weirder. The MEDDs closed with a “fish bowl session”, a panel discussion seeded with a few speakers, who then give up their seats to audience members who want to chime in. After the discussion was fixated solely on the topic of mobile “fragmentation” — incompatibilities between devices supposedly implementing the same standards — I joined in to say that that was just one of many barriers to developers in the field. Having to partner with carriers to get your apps signed, or having them completely disabled to third parties, was extremely uninviting, and with so many other things they could be doing on the web with Ajax and Flash, or on the desktop, there might not be a lot of appeal for developers to put up with this. As an afterthought, I tossed in something like “even BD-J makes it hard for outsiders to get in, and they haven’t sabotaged themselves with incompatibilities.” To which former JCP chair Ohno Klut came in to correct me… not to say that getting in was impossible, but that BD-J was also badly fragmented by incompatibilities between players. In other words: it’s not as bad as you say, Chris, it’s worse.

Whatever the state of BD-J, the idea of actively evangelizing a closed platform seems curiously pointless. You don’t see Apple evangelizing Nano/Classic iPod games to developers, since the SDKs are exposed only to a very small group of partners, quite probably solicited by Apple from among the top game developers (EA, Namco, Harmonix, Sega, etc.). There’s no intention to let Bob or Mary write an iPod game in the basement, and thus, no overt effort to recruit them to do so.

Of course, that brings up the issue of the iPhone SDK, expected to be released in February. I’m interested to understand what Apple gets out of this. The simple model is something like “you submit your app to Apple, they sell it on the iTunes store, and you get 25%.” Mmmmmaybe. But I wonder if the long game isn’t really meant to move the device itself, not third-party software. I can imagine a lot of large businesses being very interested in custom iPhone applications. Think of the pad the UPS guy has you sign for your package, which tracks both the package ID and the physical location of the signer. If the iPhone SDK gives you access to the camera (to read barcodes) and the location technologies, you could develop a similar app without having to spend millions developing and manufacturing your own devices, like UPS did.

And a business that can develop its own custom apps would then be in a position to make a bulk purchase of iPhones. So, whatever you thought Apple’s cut of your iTunes-marketed app was, I’ll bet their margin on a couple thousand iPhones would blow it away.

We’ll see what the iPhone SDK looks like, but I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t think Apple’s making a charitable offering to the wild mob of developers; I think they want to use those developers to move more product, maybe by fostering innovation and buzz, but just as likely by being amenable to corporate apps that drive bulk purchases. Blu-Ray doesn’t seem to have similar motivations — or prospects, frankly — and is perfectly happy to coast on the appeal of its movie content, not its interactivity.

And it should work out for them pretty well. But why they feel the need to bring the dog and pony show to Java developer events, I just do not get.

A few down attacks and reversals

I probably won’t blog a lot about gaming here, but it is a valid and important variety of media, one that I enjoy.

The other night, I happened upon the final round of the Championship Gaming Series on DirecTV. I don’t know who thinks that watching other people play video games is good TV, but in limited doses it does kind of work for gamers. Actually, I found myself actually angry at what I was watching, as the gamers playing Dead Or Alive 4 were playing the game as a sort of generic fighting game, and not actually as DOA.

We had DOA 2 on the Dreamcast and PS2 at Worthless Piece of Crap Wireless Software Company #1, and the gist of the game is “anti-predictability”. More than any other fighting game, DOA expects you to vary your style and improvise. The key is the reversal/hold system: if an opponent comes at you with a high or mid-level attack, you press your guard button and go back on the D-pad to grab the attack and reverse it. To reverse low attacks, you guard and press down and back. The system resists canned moves: if you keep showing favorite attacks, opponents will anticipate and reverse them. Reversal damage is often as great or greater than initiated attacks, so good DOA players combine an unpredictable set of attack moves with reversals, holds, and down attacks to win. But in the CGS, the players were playing “Generic Fighting Game”: attack middle, guard, back up, repeat. A decent DOA player should be able to dismantle such silliness. Every time a player went down, he failed to roll sideways for the wakeup game, and the attackers never used down attacks to further punish the knocked-down characters. These are the best players?

When Kelly walked in the room, she noticed the eye-candy babe with the cutoff shirt and short shorts whose only purpose was to ask the teams if they were ready and then say “go!” Kelly’s take: “couldn’t they just use the start button?” Yes, cheesy, but one of the many things they’ve done to adapt the competition to television. They also borrowed their set design from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and the idea of coaches for videogame players seems silly. But you’re taking an activity that doesn’t actually involve a lot of physical action, and trying to make it televisual: the producers knew they had to do something.

Still, next year, let’s hope they work in some music-rhythm titles (Guitar Hero or Rock Band) or some Wii-mote slinging games to get the kids off their butts.

Speaking of the Wii, we snagged one in September for Christmas, marking the end of my run with Sony consoles. Of course, I’m not the only one. As of this writing, NexGenWars shows the Wii having passed the 360 in terms of installed base, with two and a half times as many units sold as the PS3. November’s numbers from Gamasutra shows the trend continuing, with a modest upturn for PS3 following the introduction of a cheaper model. But it’s still not even selling as well as the PS2.

It doesn’t help that PS3 still doesn’t have appealing software, especially among top-tier would-be system sellers. Lair and Heavenly Sword can’t touch the 360’s Bioshock or Halo 3 for buzz, which in turn pales next to the Wii’s reach across demographics.

You know, at this point in the last generation, the PS1 had dropped to $50, yet the PS2 remains at $130, and still sells (better than the PS3). PS3 still needs to be $100 cheaper, but I wonder if Sony isn’t playing a long game — banking on the Wii to pass as a fad, and keeping some pricing power for the PS3 so they don’t totally lose their shirts. It’s possible they’re even using profits on the still-$130 PS2 to underwrite the PS3. But that can’t last forever. They either need something to make the PS3 appealing in its own right, or they need the Wii hype to suddenly go sour.

And no, Blu-Ray movies aren’t going to save them. HD-DVD seems to have been reinvigorated by being the cheaper of the standards, though Joe Sixpack is really not interested in potentially buying into the losing side of a format war with either one. The smart money says both will be displaced by high-def digital downloads anyways, but it remains to be seen if the various parties will ever agree to a workable system: Hollywood doesn’t want Apple dominating movie distribution like they have with music, yet the existing movie download services work with too few devices and offer too few titles to be viable.

One more thought on Blu-Ray. This year at JavaOne, we heard something of a mea culpa from Blu-Ray stakeholders in that they hadn’t done enough to reach out to open-source and indie developers, keeping the format out of reach with exorbitant license fees. I blogged these JavaOne sessions and wrote:

One comment that Sun’s Bill Foote made indicated that there was disagreement within the Blu-Ray Disc Association as to how to approach non-licensee developers. The current situation, with tools and specs only available to licensees (basically just the studios, as licensing costs are extraordinary), leaves the format with too few programmers to be viable, and while participants like Sun would clearly prefer to get information out to independent developers, this apparently doesn’t sit well with some BDA members, even though Foote reports agreement that some kind of overture to indie developers needs to be made.

I would just note that six months later, I have heard absolutely nothing on this front. I still see a few people trying to get into Blu-Ray, but there doesn’t seem to be anything done to make it easy, and there’s still no sign of BD-J being used for anything more than fancy menus and trivial games. The promise that Blu-Ray was going to let you, among other things, participate in interactive group viewings of your movies over the internet, with downloadable new content, continues to exist only in theory.