If you thought you'd soon be experiencing the joys of fully featured next-generation DVD, think again. Companies, desperate to launch their products, have been cutting corners.

This column appears in the June 06 issue of PC Advisor, available now.

Imagine a group of Olympic speed skaters lined up at the start of a race, jostling for position and desperate to get going. But the ice isn't ready, and someone's going to come a cropper. You wouldn't want to watch, would you? Yet the backers of Blu-ray and HD-DVD, the optical disc formats poised to succeed DVD, are in such a situation.

Vendors have been desperately waiting to release players for prerecorded HD (high-definition) content in both formats. But they’ve been forced to change their launch plans because of delays in finalising the content protection specification that both formats will use – and which neither set of proponents control. If consumers want to enjoy any of the futuristic features that the next-gen discs were expected to support, they’ll have to wait.

Welcome to the world of next-gen DVD. PR wars, misinformation and repeated delays have created a messy state of affairs that’s only going to get more complicated.

Copy protection: the interim solution

Given the apparent ease with which the copy protection on standard-definition DVD was broken years back, it’s not surprising that Hollywood and the tech community would want to take their time to work out the details on AACS (advanced access content system) and get it right.

However, some of those details weren't ready in time for consumer electronics firms' release schedules. Take Toshiba, which in late March produced its first HD-DVD players – the earliest next-gen products to hit store shelves. It was manufacturing the players even before an interim AACS spec – released by the AACS Licensing Association to accommodate companies that wanted to start shipping their HD products – was reached.

The interim spec enables Hollywood studios to encode and distribute content securely, and supports playback of that content on players. But this version of AACS has limitations – most conspicuously the lack of support for managed copy. Managed copy is industry jargon for the technology that enables content providers to offer legal free or fee-based ways for you to move content around on a home server, make a physical copy for backup purposes or transfer it to another device, such as a portable player.

"A player that’s licensed under the interim agreement will not be able to do managed copy," says Richard Doherty, spokesperson of the AACS Licensing Association.

Although Doherty declined to detail the outstanding concerns, he did say that they relate to how managed copy will be implemented, and not to the actual technology. Tech-wise, the spec is done, which makes it plausible for a manufacturer to implement managed copy but not turn it on, then enable it later, Doherty explained.

However, copy support won’t be forthcoming for the first round of players. Neither Toshiba’s HD-A1 nor its HD-XA1 are firmware-upgradeable to support managed copy, in spite of the fact that these units have front-mounted USB ports for some undefined future expansion. The same is true of Pioneer’s Elite BDP-HD1 and Samsung’s BD-1000, which are due out in June and May 2006 respectively.

Legacy considerations

So what will consumers experience when they play a disc that offers managed-copy options in a device that doesn’t support them? Those features could be greyed out or hidden when the disc is placed into the device. Doherty has been keen to stress that his organisation intends to avoid any kind of legacy problems with discs.

"One of the challenges in AACS is in coming to an agreement among all of the participating bodies and organisations," he admits. "We expect AACS to carry an obligation for managed copy under the final agreement. But we are still working out the policies for that."

The AACS Licensing Association includes several heavy hitters that it needs to please: its founding members are IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, Walt Disney and Warner Brothers.

The obligation Doherty mentions refers to ongoing statements by HD-DVD backers that the format would require managed-copy features, implying at least some support for consumer copying. The Blu-ray Disc Association has indicated that its format will support managed copy as well.

In both formats, the basic managed-copy policies will be handled by AACS. Blu-ray Disc has two added layers of copy protection – BD Plus and ROM Mark – but neither should directly affect the format’s ability to support managed copy, according to Blu-ray Disc Association representative Andy Parsons.

Early buyers beware

The AACS Licensing Association’s logic in releasing the interim licence is simple. "We expected the first early players to be basic models," explains Doherty. "And we didn’t want to slow down the roll-out of those devices."

But since the first players won’t support managed copying, the full promise of the AACS security standard won’t be available to early adopters who buy one of these devices to complement a HDTV.

Perhaps none of this will matter to some prospective buyers of HD players. If you’ve never contemplated moving content via USB to a portable device or using your home network to transfer a movie to a server so you can play it on any networked set in your home, the lack of managed-content support is unlikely to affect you.

More to the point, while both Toshiba players and the Pioneer product will have ethernet ports, the networking functionality in these devices wouldn’t allow you to transfer content over a network even if the copy-protection technology did. The Toshiba units’ ethernet setup is designed for accessing the internet to download content, while the Pioneer’s network support is strictly for streaming content from a home network to the device – not vice-versa.

Improved image quality

Maybe the simple ability to play HD content will be enough – especially if you own a huge display, or plan to. We saw a preview of HD content during a recent Toshiba roadshow stop in California that highlighted the HD-XA1. The content certainly looked impressive – particularly on the 72in rear-projection set used in the demonstration.

No full-length movies were available, but we saw trailers for King Kong and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among others.

The images, unsurprisingly, had depth and looked vibrant. We were even more impressed by the example of HD Mpeg4-AVC content, which was distinctly sharper and more detailed than standard-definition content.

Tina Tuccillo, Toshiba’s vice-president of marketing communications, says the company expects to sell 30,000 HD-DVD players in the first three months after they ship. For comparison, by the end of 1997 – the year that DVD first appeared – an estimated 200,000 players had been sold, but there wasn’t a format war back then.

If you're ready to take the plunge into the world of prepackaged HD entertainment, you'll be able to do so soon. "By the end of March, we will have both hardware and software on the streets and ready to go," promises HD-DVD promotion group representative Mark Knox.

Just don't count on buying the Star Wars movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy or any of the Terminator films to play on either an HD-DVD or a Blu-ray device. Thanks to the ongoing format war, these blockbusters will not be available in either format.