Apple Backs Blu-ray DVD; Joins Consortium (UPDATE)

Apple Computer will become a member of The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) with a seat on its board of directors, the company announced Thursday. The announcement paves the way for the Mac maker to add support for the high-capacity Blu-Ray storage technology in its DVD hardware and software.

"Apple is pleased to join the Blu-ray Disc Association board as part of our efforts to drive consumer adoption of HD," said Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs, in a prepared statement. "Consumers are already creating stunning HD content with Appleis leading video editing applications like iMovie HD and are anxiously awaiting a way to burn their own high def DVDs."

"Weire thrilled about Apple joining our 16-member board, and we look forward to working with them on the development and promotion of the Blu-ray Disc format," said Maureen Weber, chief BDA spokesperson and general manager of HPis Optical Storage Solutions Business.

"This is good news for the alliance and good news for Apple because they are going to have a say on future standards at a very high level," Strategy Analytics analyst Peter King told TMO. "I think Apple will certainly help and probably influence the content community and especially movies studios like Disney, MGM."

Mr. King has some questions about what the alliance with Apple means. "The announcement was vague and I wonder what their role will be," he said.

What is not known is if the agreement is an exclusive deal or if Apple could support a competing DVD standard, known as HD-DVD. An Apple spokesperson was not immediately available for comment to The Mac Observer.

The Apple announcement was planned to coincide with a similar announcement made at the CeBIT electronics trade show, taking place in Hanover, Germany.

What is Blu-ray?

Blu-ray is a next-generation optical disc format being developed for High Definition video and high-capacity software applications. The format was developed originally by Sony to enable recording, rewriting and playback of high-definition video (HD), as well as storing large amounts of data.

A single-layer Blu-ray Disc can hold 25 gigabytes (GB), which can be used to record over two hours of HDTV or more than 13 hours of standard-definition TV. There are also dual-layer versions of the discs that can hold 50GB.

While current optical disc technologies such as DVD, DVD?R, DVD?RW, and DVD-RAM use a red laser to read and write data, the new format uses a blue-violet laser instead, hence the name Blu-ray.

The BDA has over 100 members including Dell, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, Panasonic, Pioneer, Phillips, Samsung, Sharp and Sony, Sony Pictures, MGM and Walt Disney. Over the years, Apple has used Pioneer and Sony DVD drives in its Macintosh computers.

Appleis Blu-Ray plans unsure

Despite Thursdayis announcement that it is onboard with the Blu-Ray technology, Apple has given no signs of when it might update its hardware and software to support the standard. Industry watchers believe Apple has been planning for Blu-Ray support for some time in its operating system and has been working with Pioneer and Sony to incorporate Blu-Ray-ready DVD drives in future versions of the Macintosh.

Neither Pioneer or Hitachi have announced the availability of a Blu-Ray DVD drive. Presently, only Sony and Samsung have announced Blue-ray drives, which have yet to ship.

Blu-Rayis future

Blu-ray discs are expected to become available in three different versions in the next few months -- BD-ROM as a read-only format, BD-R as write-once and BD-RE, a rewritable format.

Blu-ray discs are expected to become available in versions with up to 50GB of space on dual-layer discs and 25GB on single layer. By 2007, Sony believes it can compress data even more to create 100GB of storage space and later up to 200GB.

In January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Philips demonstrated a Blu-Ray disc drive with backwards compatibility to CDs and DVDs. Still in its early stages of development, the device reads and writes CD, DVD and Blu-ray discs. Philips expects the drives to ship in the second half of this year.

The battle of the DVD

Appleis decision to support Blu-Ray is a major plus for the BDA that is competing in a format war with another standard -- HD-DVD. In the HD-DVD camp are manufacturers Toshiba, NEC, film studios Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Technically, there are few differences between the two technologies. At present, HD-DVD can only store 25GB of data versus 50GB for Blu-Ray, but its developers say they are about to announce substantial increases in storage capacity.

While HD-DVD has not got as many backers, it does have some technology advantages over Blu-Ray. Media and mass-produced movie titles on HD-DVD can be made in the same plants that are now being used to make standard definition discs. The advantage will be cheaper prices on HD-DVD discs than Blu-Ray.

There has been talk among industry executives of both camps of trying to find a way to unify on one standard, so as to not cause mass consumer confusion, aka the Betmax versus VHS wars of 80s.

"The time for unification is now, before a Darwinian process of natural selection can set in, and before the expenditures of many millions with the prospect of a stunted new format being a distance possibility," said Bob Chapek, president of the Digital Entertainment Group at the 2005 International Consumers Electronics Show in Las vegas last January.

One way of bringing both groups together would be a technological solution. Japanese company JVC unveiled at CES a non-recordable hybrid disc featuring an integration of HD DVD/Blue-ray formats that could prove to be the answer. The new DVD has three layers, dual DVD-layers topped by a 25GB high-definition Blue-ray layer for a total of 33.5GB capacity. JVC said it is working on a four-layer disc providing two Blue-ray layers and two DVD layers for a total of 58.5GB of storage capacity.

But Mr. King believes itis very unlikely at this stage that both alliances will form a union.

"Weire going to role out later this year with products that have two formats," Mr. King said. "Weire are going to have another format war. Pure and simple."