SHIFT: Earth to Blu-ray — show us a sign

Blu-ray officially won the format war against HD DVD more than six weeks ago. It's old news, but I'm still thinking about it. Ever since HD DVD died, commentators have been less than optimistic about Blu-ray's future. Just last week my colleague Charlie White opined that spinning media is dead, agreeing with a chief scientist at THX. Last month fellow columnist Leslie Shapiro argued that although Blu-ray won the format war, it would continue to cower in the shadow of video downloads. ComputerWorld listed four reasons Blu-ray will tank, and they are remarkably similar to the four reasons Slate thought that both formats were "dead on arrival" back in 2006. Talk about raining on the parade.

Not everyone agrees. David Pogue of The New York Times believes that physical media will be alive and kicking for the foreseeable future. Saul Hansell, also of the Times, explained why flash drives won't replace discs anytime soon. What's clear is that Blu-ray finally has the potential to be a serious contender. So why isn't it doing what's necessary to get there? Click Continue to read my advice for Sony, the chief creator of the format.

Since the end of the format war I've thought that Blu-ray has the potential to be wildly successful, but only if it's willing to slash prices and make a determined effort to teach consumers what the hell it is. So far it's done neither and is growing, but slowly. While earlier in the year Blu-ray discs typically accounted for 2 to 3% of a particular movie's sale, that figure has jumped as high as 12% for some titles. Analysts predict that 30 million homes worldwide will have Blu-ray players (mostly in the form of a PS3) by the end of the year. After that, growth will continue at a slow, steady pace— no one's calling this new format the next iPod. Here's how Sony could speed things up.

I've Just Spent $2,000 on a Television, Now What?
Apple thinks that people want to watch YouTube on their 42-inch plasmas. I think they'd rather show off how good their new TV looks playing high-quality movies. If you invest in an HDTV, it's only natural that you'll want an HD DVD player. What, those players don't exist anymore? How frustrating.

I think it's impossible to overestimate how confusing the Blu-ray name has been, especially in the context of some sort of obscure tech "war" most people only barely knew about. My peers — young, social-networking educated professionals in their mid-twenties — have no idea what Blu-ray is. Seriously. I've been quizzing them. A recent study shows that 60% of Americans are "aware" of the Blu-ray brand. That doesn't mean they know what the machines do.

The name Blu-ray isn't synonymous with HD the way Kleenex is with tissues, Xerox is with copies, or Band-Aid is with little sticky things you put on cuts. I wish that Blu-ray could co-opt, purchase or adopt the name HD DVD (or "Hi-Def DVD" if Toshiba won't sell and doesn't own it already). Sadly, this seems an unlikely possibility. But it's not the only way the format can get traction. Where is Blu-ray's Apple-style multimillion-dollar advertising and educational campaign? It seems that Sony was more interested in winning over studios than customers. The result is instead of Blu-ray being a buzzword, it's a nerdy-sounding conversation killer.

Put Your Money Where Your URLs Are
Right now neither Sony nor the Blu-ray Disc Association owns the URLs blu-ray.com and bluray.com. How much would it have cost them to buy the names, even this late in the game? Certainly not as much as they likely paid to get some film studios to switch sides. Also, it's nearly impossible to find the term "Blu-ray" on Sony's American home page, even under the drop-down menu for "Electronics." You have to go to a sub-tertiary menu: Electronics: TV & Home Entertainment: Our Brands & Technologies: Blu-ray Disc. And when you click on that link you’re taken to a store page that offers some Blu-ray players with no additional information about what the format is or what its advantages are. I suggest a landing page with branding and side-by-side screenshots comparing the format to standard def (SD).

I'm baffled by how the format has made itself so obscure to consumers. Even Blu-ray's official website, blu-raydisc.com hasn't updated its press releases since August 2007. Hint to Sony: Hire a better PR firm.

Lower Prices Now, Not Next Year
Some are saying that since Blu-ray no longer has HD DVD as a competitor, it has no reason to lower prices. And in fact Blu-ray player prices are actually rising. Sony seems to have forgotten that it still has tons of competition. In addition to competing with downloads, the format is in the arena with games, DVRs and upconverting DVD players — all technologies that cost less and are less confusing. At current prices, analysts predict that consumer adoption of Blu-ray will be a long, slow process, giving time for download speeds to catch up to the (currently superior) quality of Blu-ray. If Sony truly aims to replace the DVD, the company should reduce prices sooner rather than later. As with the nonexistent advertising blitz, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already.

The 'Ray's Here to Stay
Like it or not, right now Blu-ray is the best technology out there for making your HDTV look fantastic. Spinning media's not dead yet. While Comcast messes with your download speed and gimps its HD channels, Blu-ray owners can sit back and watch content in full 1080p. But in order to capture the crowd that doesn't know what 1080p is (vastly bigger than the group that does), Sony will have to stop acting like a victorious monopoly and make a push. It wouldn't kill the company to use the words "high-def" while doing it.

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