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Toshiba takes DVD war to stores with first new player

The race to set the industry standard for high-definition DVDs swept into Japan’s stores Friday as Toshiba put on sale its first next-generation player.

Supporters of the HD DVD format pushed by Toshiba and NEC are vying with the rival Blu-ray format, led by Panasonic and Sony, in a replay of the VHS-Betamax battle between two types of video cassette tapes in the late 1970s.

“We are heading into another format war,” said Carlos Dimas, a consumer electronics analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets.

In a low-key launch only confirmed on the day, Toshiba began selling its HD-XA1 high-definition player in Japan for ¥110 000 ($850).

Two different types of HD DVD players, which promise cinematic quality images and new possibilities in interactive entertainment, will also gradually hit the United States market in April.

Japanese electronics makers have invested heavily in the future of DVDs and are fighting a fierce campaign to try to convince consumers that their product should become the dominant format.

“I cannot emphasise enough that our standard is better than Blu-ray,” Toshiba senior executive vice-president Yoshihide Fujii said at a hastily-arranged press conference to announce the launch.

“We hope to pursue a strategic marketing campaign so that our customers will make a swift transition to next-generation DVDs,” he said.

A stream of curious consumers inspected the new DVD player at a Bic Camera electronics store in central Tokyo on Friday evening, with even Taizo Nishimuro, head of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, taking a peak.

“I cannot tell the difference [between HD DVD and Blu-ray]. But their images are very clear, very crisp. It is quite impressive,” said a 35-year-old businessman, who did not want to give his name.

“I cannot afford to buy them. Not now. Too expensive,” he said, standing before both HD DVD and Blu-ray machines.

The Panasonic brand maker, Matsushita, said on Wednesday it will start selling its first Blu-ray high-definition DVD player in North America in September.

Sony has been selling an earlier version of the Blu-ray Disc recorder/player since April 2003 but so far no movies are available in the format. Sony Pictures hopes to start selling the first wave of Blu-ray disc titles in May.

Toshiba’s Fujii said that as many as 200 DVD titles will become available for HD DVD players by the end of this year. Toshiba hopes to sell 600 000 to 700 000 of the new players in the fiscal year to March 2007.

Fujii suggested Toshiba will gradually cut prices of the players to “reasonable” levels.

“Becoming the first one to start selling the new product is not going to give you any edge over others. Unless prices become more reasonable, DVD players won’t sell,” he said.

Sony, which is in the midst of painful restructuring, has much riding on the success of its Blu-ray technology.

Analysts say the electronics icon has an advantage in that its own format will reach thousands of homes in the next version of its hot-selling PlayStation video games console due for launch in November.

“I think Sony will prevail simply because the PlayStation 3 will give Sony the penetration that Toshiba will not be able to match,” said CLSA’s Dimas.

Hollywood studios, who could ultimately decide the fate of the two formats, are split in their support for either Toshiba or Sony.

Microsoft, Sony’s arch-rival in the market for home games consoles, is another supporter of HD DVD and eventually aims to make its next-generation Windows Vista operating system compatible with Toshiba’s format. – AFP

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