Sony wins Blu-ray, loses online-video warS

I'm as ready as anyone to declare Sony the victor in the epic high-definition disc battle. Its Blu-ray, now supported by Warner Bros., looks set to best Toshiba's HD-DVD. In Hollywood, where they still care about the industrial process of shipping plastic discs by the millions to retail stores, this matters. In the Valley, we've long since moved on. Sony executives still dream of formats, hardware, and an empire of lock-in. To them, "software" means the creative content screened in theaters, dropped into CD players, or played on a videogame console. That's why they're doomed to lose the real war.

Here we know better. Software is the ingredient that turns content into quicksilver, shifting in time and place to the device we desire, at the moment we choose. Apple has mastered this alchemy, and others like Microsoft and Amazon.com are studying the fast; but to Sony it remains a dark art.

Online video remains immensely fragmented. Should you download a video on Xbox Live? Buy it on Amazon.com's Unbox via your TiVo set-top? Rent it on iTunes, and broadcast it to your flat-screen display with an Apple TV? The choices seem endless, and endlessly confusing. But none of them, I'd note, market themselves based on a format. The format, if any, is broadband, and a set of standardized audio/video connectors. The rest is fungible.

There will no doubt be a shakeout among online-video stores. If nothing else kills off the weaker players, consumers will rapidly tire of purchasing the same movies again and again. A rack of DVDs on the shelf provides a reassuring sense of permanence. Perhaps physical media will make a comeback. Warren Lieberfarb, who helped invent the DVD at Warner Bros. and now consults for Toshiba on HD-DVD, predicts that flash-memory devices might be sold in stores preloaded with video.

Sony actually had that idea, I believe, with its MagicGate memory sticks. Another nonstandard format, tied to hardware, with buggy software. The same complaints are being made about Blu-ray, with its ever-shifting specification requiring firmware updates. Sony, drenched in blood, stands victorious in the optical-disc format battle. Too bad the war is now being waged in another theater.