Blu-Ray Hardware Makers Mum On Plans

Aug 29, 2006 (01:08 PM EDT)

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TOKYO — A gathering of Blu-ray Disc companies here revealed an avalanche of content coming from content providers, but a dearth of available hardware on which to play the titles.

The meeting and demonstration were attended by 14 content providers and five hardware suppliers. The Blu-ray Disc content suppliers showed off nearly 100 BD-ROM video packages, but hardware suppliers clammed up about their hardware introduction plans.

"We want to bring a high quality of content in BD-ROM video disks—movies, music and animations that are better than HD broadcasting to homes," Kiyoshi Nishitani, deputy president of the Sony TV and Video Business Group, said in his introductory comments at the demonstration.

Digital media critic Reiji Asakura predicted that the next-generation optical-disk systems will mark the biggest advancement "in 25 years, since the advent of VHS, in enabling audio/video content that makes a real emotional impression on people."

But thus far the cheerleading is coming largely from the software providers. Only Samsung Electronics is selling a BD-ROM video player, the BDP-1000, in the United States. Matsushita is expected to introduce a player in the States in September, followed in October by a Sony introduction.

In contrast, Japanese consumers won't be able to buy Blu-ray Disc players in Japan until November, when Sony launches its oft-delayed Playstation 3, which incorporates a built-in BD player. Other Japanese consumer electronics vendors are not divulging their product introduction plans for Blu-ray.

The prevailing thinking among Japanese hardware vendors is that a recording function is essential for Japanese consumers. Looking to the current DVD market for insight into trends for follow-on formats, vendors note that DVD players have dominated U.S. hardware sales for that format, whereas the Japanese market has been more focused on the sales of DVD recorders.

"We are selling DVD hardware in Japan at a ratio of 10 DVD recorders to every DVD player," said Sony's Nishitani.

But none of the hardware suppliers—Sony, Matsushita, Pioneer, Hitachi or Sharp —clarified its marketing plans, saying only that BD recorders could be released by year's end.

More than 10 million units of high-definition TVs for terrestrial reception are in use in Japan, and more than 50 percent of digital video recorders can record terrestrial DTV programs, said Masayuki Kozuka, general manager of the Matsushita Storage Devices Business Strategy Office. The Blu-ray Disc supporters hold about a 75 percent collective share in the digital HD video recorder market in Japan, he said.

Sony's Nishitani said the company would introduce a BD recorder first for the Japanese market, since there are plenty of HDTV programs available for recording in that market.

Disc production issues

Also facing the Blu-ray camp are disc production issues.

For BD-ROM disc production, Sony's disc manufacturing group DADC set up the production system (see article). The BD group claims the 50 Gbyte capacity disc realized by the dual-layered structure is an advantage over competing HD DVD, but the difficulty of producing the discs has been regarded as a big hurdle.

Matsushita's Kozuka stressed that Matsushita has already established a volume production system at its BD Replication Task Force (BDRT) at PDMC (Panasonic Disc Manufacturing Corp. of America) in Torrance, Calif. Matsushita now lacks a disc replication business in the U.S., so is considering turning the replication line into a commercial line.

"By the Christmas season, dual-layered discs will be on market," Kozuka said. Matsushita is offering the disc production technology to other replicators through its affiliate company Origin Electric.

Sony also plans to begin producing dual layered discs at its Shizuoka plant.