EE Times: How ironic that the producers of films long ago referred to as “blue movies” are unlikely to find a friend in the similarly named “Blu-ray” technology from Sony. Last month, there were reports that the Japanese tech company would not license its technology to such unsavory businesses. Sony refuted that, but the die was cast. The rumor mill was ginned up, and all sorts of predictions regarding the death of Blu-ray cropped up on the Internet. But it’s not dead yet, and Sony ain’t stupid.
The rumors started because, it seemed, history was repeating itself. And it was, sort of. For you youngins, way back in the 1980s, Sony invented a high-quality videotape called Betamax. It came to market just before JVC’s VHS tape. The story goes that Sony refused to license its proprietary technology to the porn industry, but JVC (Matsushita) would. There was such a demand for porn that Betamax – despite being a better quality product that VHS — was killed off because it arrogantly took the high moral ground.
The truth is, Sony’s moral position didn’t kill Beta, Sony’s arrogance did.
Sony bet that the public would buy its (more expensive) devices for “time shifting,” i.e., the ability to tape a show and watch it later. So its tapes held only 60 minutes of programming. When RCA asked for longer tapes, Sony’s engineers refused, noting that the recorded quality would be too poor. JVCs engineers also balked but were overruled by parent company Matsushita. Thus, a four-hour tape was born, and people started taping football games and watching movies (OK, some were porn) at home, on VCRs rather than the much more expensive Betamax equipment. But remember, it was the misreading of the market — the belief that people merely wanted one hour of tape — that caused the product to fail.
Of course, as Chris Garvin, the director of the Multimedia Department at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia told me, “Pornography has long been a ‘canary in the coal mine’ when it comes to distribution technology and doing it profitably. This occurred first with video tape’s changing the Hollywood revenue stream by creating the straight to video market and second in creating a profitable pay-to-play model on the Internet.” Ah, yes, the Internet. Isn’t porn largely responsible for streaming video evolving? Nowadays you do not need to put porn on a VCR or DVD player…you can just download it from the Net.
And that’s why Blu-ray ain’t dead by any means. Sure, Sony is as arrogant as it ever has been: It loves its proprietary technology a bit too much, witness memory sticks and its competition to the MP3 format, ATRAC. But in this case, it may have judged the market correctly: Quality is king, and it doesn’t hurt that all those PlayStation 3 sold during the holidays are really Blu-ray players in disguise.
True, HD DVD had the initial market lead. That’s because HD DVD was initially the easier technology for third-party duplication houses — factories did not have to be significantly retooled to manufacture HD-DVDs. So those discs beat Blu-ray to market by a couple of months last year. But then Blu-ray came on the scene, and Sony decided, more or less, to protect its brand by keeping it away from the porn industry.
To that last point, though, Sony may not be as vigilant as it was back in the Betamax days. Apparently, “Debbie Does Dallas” is due on Blu-ray next month. We’ll see how much that does to boost overall Blu-ray sales, which are currently handily ahead of HD-DVDs.