Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Apple and High Definition

I haven’t written a technical comment piece in a while, so here’s one about Apple and the lack of support for High Definition optical media in their computers.
By High Definition optical media, I’m referring to the competing formats of Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. They’re both disc formats designed to replace DVD by offering the greater storage capacity needed for High Definition (HD) content, and both have a number of industry heavyweights behind them. I could go on about the history of the two formats but there’s already a million and one other web sites on the internet that have that information.
We’re starting to see higher end Windows PCs shipping with Blu-Ray and HD-DVD drives. Normally Apple is quite quick to adopt new technologies – Apple machines were some of the first to include Wifi, Bluetooth and FireWire connectivity – but high definition optical drives are noticeably missing from Apple’s current line-up.

Apple’s allegiances in the format war are publicly known – Apple joined the Blu-Ray Disc Association in March 2005 – so that would suggest that Apple would favour Blu-Ray over HD-DVD. There are other arguments which support this too, namely to do with FireWire. Now at first glance FireWire, a method of connecting peripherals, or other computers, to a computer, may well have nothing to do Blu-Ray but there are some similarities. Apple developed FireWire with the help of Sony (along with Texas Instruments, DEC, IBM and Thomson), and Sony is the major proponent of the Blu-Ray format. And compared to USB2, FireWire is arguably the superior standard (more constant data transfer rates, networking support and a higher DC current) – Blu-Ray is also technically superior to HD-DVD as a Blu-Ray disc can hold 25 GB of data per layer compared to HD-DVD’s 15 GB.
But two and a half years have passed since Apple announced they had joined the Blu-Ray Disc Association and there have been no further announcements about adding support for Blu-Ray to Apple’s hardware. During this time all of Apple’s computer products have been replaced with new models as part of the move to Intel processors, and a new version of the OS X operating system is due out in less than 2 weeks, which seemingly lacks any mention of support for Blu-Ray, or indeed HD-DVD.
So what is Apple’s plan? In my mind, they could be doing 1 of three things:
1. Avoiding HD optical drives altogether
Though sales of high definition televisions are increasing all the time, there is very little content available on Blu-Ray or HD-DVD – mostly a handful of new movie releases. Apple may, therefore, not see adding HD optical drives as a priority and concentrate on keeping prices lower by sticking with combo drives and SuperDrives which a higher proportion of users will find useful.
This is unlikely, however. iMovie, Apple’s movie editing software which ships on all new Macs as part of iLife, supports HD content and has done since iLife ’05. Film trailers on its web site are available in HD and it’s Apple TV product has HD connectors. Apple also tends to target the high-end of the computer market – the people who can afford HD televisions and subscriptions to HD channels. So HD must be part of Apple’s overall strategy and therefore adding an HD optical drive to their machines is likely to happen at some point soon.
2. Waiting until Blu-Ray is a clear winner
Though many people reckon that Blu-Ray will eventually win out over HD-DVD in the format war, quite how long this will take remains to be seen. The older readers here will remember the VHS and Betamax war, of which VHS was the eventual winner, so it’s feasible that Apple will wait until the majority of HD discs that are available and bought are Blu-Ray and that Blu-Ray is what most other computer manufacturers are going with.
But this could take a long time. We’re a few years into the format war already and there’s no sign of a clear winner yet. Both sides have had victories and defeats – Blu-Ray is in every PlayStation 3, has some big films available on it (Spider-Man 3 for example) and will be the only format used by Blockbuster. But HD-DVD players are cheaper, is backed by industry heavyweights Intel and Microsoft, and will likely have a wider range of adult titles. And we all know sex sells.
And what if there isn’t a winner? There are 3 competing formats for writeable DVDs – DVD+R, DVD-R and DVD-RAM – but the prevalence of multi-format players/writers means that no format has won out over its rivals. If Apple is waiting for a winner, it could still be waiting in several years’ time.
Which brings us to Apple’s third option:
3. Waiting for a multi-format player
Apple may have its allegiances with Blu-Ray, but when it comes to its own hardware it could choose just to support both formats with a single multi-format drive. That way its customers could buy discs in either format and be able to play them in the same drive, like you can with CDs and DVDs.
This way Apple would not need to take sides in the format war (beyond the moves it has already made) and would cover itself if HD-DVD, rather than Blu-Ray, became the dominant format. And it means Apple won’t have to wait for a winner to emerge.
Unfortunately very few multi-format drives actually exist and even fewer are available to buy. This is really cutting edge technology and so it’s going to be a while before they’re prevalent enough and cheap enough to manufacture on a large scale.
If Apple did adopt a multi-format player then it wouldn’t be the first time it has supported a variety of formats. There’s a format war brewing elsewhere in the IT industry, between OpenDocument and Office Open XML, which are two open document formats both based on XML. In Leopard, Apple will be supporting both in its TextEdit application, although OpenDocument support is noticeably absent in iWork ’08. Apple also supports both its own network communication protocols as well as Microsoft’s for example, although that’s probably because of the prevalence of Windows and not out of choice.
It’s probably obvious that I personally think a multi-format drive is the best step forward here. I don’t think the HD format war is going away any time soon and it’s going to be some years before there’s any signs of a winner, if at all. If Apple wants to maintain its reputation as being at the forefront of new technology then it should consider adding support for HD optical drives soon, at least as an option on its higher-end machines (i.e. iMacs, Mac Pros and MacBook Pros). Sticking with one format may be too risky to do now so giving customers the choice should be the best move.
How soon is debatable though. Right now DVD sales outstrip HD-DVD and Blu-Ray sales combined by about 10 to 1, so it’s not as if consumer demand is all that high yet anyway.

Comments are closed.