A Big Week for Blu-ray, But Is It Enough?

blu-ray-logoIt’s been a year and a half since Blu-ray toppled HD DVD to win the high-def DVD format war. While Blu-ray won that battle, it hasn’t exactly set the marketplace — or the tech industry — on fire. Consumers have been relatively slow to upgrade to Blu-ray players, and many tech pundits are convinced it’s nothing more than a stopgap technology.

Gee, the future for Blu-ray seems pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. This week, the format gained some ground, earning the backing of its onetime archrival, Toshiba. And it’s rumored that Apple, which has been vocal in its opposition to the HD disc format, may even be next in line. Combine this with recent news that sales of Blu-ray players are increasing and that more consumers are aware of the technology and plan to make purchases, and you might think that a Blu-ray boom time has arrived. I’d like to think so, too, but I’m not convinced. Still, it is a good sign for the future of the format — and for consumers who want more Blu-ray options in stores.

Blu-ray on the Upswing

Recent data from the NPD Group shows that sales of Blu-ray players increased 72 percent in the first quarter of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. Of course, the first quarter of 2008 was when the Blu-ray-HD DVD war ended, so the comparison isn’t entirely applicable. But the research also shows that consumers are more aware of the Blu-ray format than they have been in the past, and they’re ever-so-slightly more inclined to actually buy Blu-ray players. Six percent of people said they are “extremely or very likely” to buy a Blu-ray player in the next six months, compared with 5 percent of consumers asked that same question in an August 2008 survey. FutureSource, meanwhile, is predicting that Blu-ray discs will account for 50 percent of all home video sales by 2012.

A 1 percent increase in the number of people “extremely or very likely” to buy a Blu-ray doesn’t bowl me over. Sure, you can blame the economy — if times were better, I’m sure more people would be thinking about buying a Blu-ray player. But even in today’s economy, I’d like to see more than a 1 percent increase. And a 50 percent market share gain by 2012 seems like an awfully slow uptake.

Toshiba: HD DVD No More

The least-surprising Blu-ray item of the week is news that Toshiba has finally thrown its support behind Blu-ray. The company says it will launch a line of Blu-ray products this year. This is notable because Toshiba, of course, was the primary backer of the HD DVD format — the chief rival to, and eventual victim of, Blu-ray.

Toshiba said it will offer Blu-ray players and laptops with Blu-ray drives later this year. The company also announced that it will join the Blu-ray Association. In a statement announcing the news, Toshiba said the decision to jump on the Blu-ray bandwagon was made “in light of recent growth in digital devices supporting the Blu-ray format, combined with market demand from consumers and retailers alike.”

The move is not unexpected. Industry watchers have been waiting for Toshiba to back Blu-ray for more than a year. The big deal here seems to be not the fact that Toshiba has finally succumbed to the wills of Blu-ray, but instead that it took it so long to do so. That Toshiba waited a year and a half to make this statement speaks volumes louder than the announcement itself.

Apple Goes Blu-ray?

Of greater interest (and intrigue) are rumors that Apple will add support for Blu-ray to the next major release of iTunes, version 9. While Apple has not confirmed the reports, claims to have been tipped off to the news by a “pretty reliable source.” That source says that iTunes 9 will get “Blu-ray support” but doesn’t detail exactly what that means; Engadget, meanwhile is speculating that it may just be support for Blu-ray’s “Managed Copy” feature, which allows consumers to make a backup copy of their discs.

While Blu-ray support in iTunes is nothing but speculation at this point, it does seem to be a more substantial rumor than the one concerning Apple and the high-def disc format: that the company will add Blu-ray drives to its MacBook laptops. Adding the hardware would make it easier for Mac users to take advantage of the Blu-ray features in iTunes, but it’s still an unconfirmed rumor at best — and a pipe dream at worst.

And we’ve heard this before. Apple was rumored to be adding Blu-ray drives to the MacBooks that it debuted last October. When they arrived without Blu-ray drives, CEO Steve Jobs famously called the format a “bag of hurt.” Calling the licensing “complex,” he said: “We’re waiting until things settle down, and waiting until Blu-ray takes off before we burden our customers with the cost of licensing.”

If Apple were to throw its weight behind Blu-ray, it could be a giant step forward for the format. And I think that’s a good thing. Blu-ray may have won the format wars, but it’s still struggling, and it needs all the help it can get. Sure, I think we’re moving toward an all-digital future, where movies are streamed directly to our TVs. But I think that future is a long way off. In the meantime, I’d like a solid, reliable HD format. And, for now anyway, I want that format to be Blu-ray.