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Transformers director blames MS for HD DVD/Blu-ray format war

Conspiracy theory

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Movie director Michael Bay has claimed that Microsoft is responsible for the HD DVD vs Blu-ray Disc format war, which he alleges is the Beast of Redmond's attempt to kill off physical formats and get everyone downloading instead.

Here's Bay's comment, posted in a forum on his official website:

"What you don't understand is corporate politics," he writes. "Microsoft wants both formats to fail so they can be heroes and make the world move to digital downloads. That is the dirty secret no one is talking about. That is why Microsoft is handing out 100 million dollar checks to studios just embrace the HD DVD and not the leading, and superior Blu Ray. They want confusion in the market until they perfect the digital downloads. Time will tell and you will see the truth."

We should point out that the payment of "$100m checks" is something Microsoft has denied - we only have the word of two anonymous Viacom executives that it did.

Back to Bay. His allegation is that Microsoft is essentially backing the weaker format to hinder the success of the other, thus preventing both from taking off in the way the studios and the likes of Sony and Toshiba hope. Microsoft is in the business of selling content downloads, so it's no great surprise that it might prefer physical HD media to fail.

But would it back one format to make that happen? Bay's argument assumes Blu-ray is the best format, pure and simple, and that HD DVD wouldn't get a look in without Microsoft's money. That ignores the backing the format has had not only from its main developer, Toshiba, but also major tech companies like Intel and HP, so the format's going to be promoted no matter how much cash Microsoft spreads around (allegedly).

And HD DVD isn't the poor relative of BD. Plenty of myths have emerged about the benefits of both formats, but technically they're not so very different. BD has the capacity advantage, while HD DVD has the benefit of being associated with a very strong brand: DVD.

HD DVDs are cheaper to make than BDs, but this is a red herring. First, disc manufacturers still need to adapt DVD production lines and that isn't cheap. It's not like they flick a switch and a production line starts churning out HD DVDs instead of DVDs.

BD requires a bigger equipment outlay, true, but no greater - allowing for inflation, modern capacity requirements and so on - than the cost of building DVD pressing plants in the first place, and manufacturers will always need to upgrade disc production lines, to replace older, inefficient machinery and to boost capacity. They'll be buying new equipment no matter what. The need to remain competitive will ensure they can handle multiple formats, the cost of the pricier ones being covered by sales of less expensive media.

BD's data-storage layer is closer to the surface than HD DVD's is, but it's not yet certain the format is any less resilient than its rival is. Special coatings minimise damage and - frankly - if you can't look after your discs, of whatever format they are, it serves you right if they get scratched. Don't want damaged discs? Don't let your kids mess with them.

BD does suffer from incomplete standard syndrome. HD DVD isn't entirely immune - if Toshiba's proposed 51GB disc goes mainstream, most of today's players won't be able to handle them - but the specification can be relied on more than BD's can.

These are the real issues hindering consumer take-up, and they're all a the result of both formats' immaturity. So are high disc prices and uncertainties over whether discs will play properly, as even Toshiba admits.

To make matters worse, neither format provides as much a leap above DVD that that format offered over VHS, so it's going to be some time, if ever, that they become the mainstream choice, even if World+Dog has a 1080p flat-panel TV.

By which time, of course, we will be downloading movies. Actually, rather a lot of people are doing so already, albeit illegally. The bandwidth is there and it's increasing, and more and more movie rental services are offering downloads.

It's not hard to envisage a world, not so very far off, where the vast majority of consumers, all of them casual viewers, get movies from video-on-demand services, whether they're download-based or delivered through a set-top box - only a small step up for the satellite and cable TV companies, some of whom are doing it already.

That leaves physical media to devotees - a specialist market. And as online catalogues expand, even these guys may find they can watch what they want, when they want as easily by download or VoD as they can buy buying a disc. No special features with a download? True, but while plenty of people do make sure they try out all the extras, we'd bet that the vast majority of viewers don't.

So mass-market movie downloading is coming, no matter what happens in the HD disc format war. Microsoft doesn't have to spend a cent to ensure such an outcome - all it has to do is wait and gather content.

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