Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 3: February 2006

Trends & Quick Takes

Waiting for High-Definition Discs?

The companies behind HD-DVD promised players and movies would be on the U.S. market in time for the 2005 holiday season. This was particularly important to them because Blu-ray, the higher-capacity disc backed by many more companies, clearly wouldn’t be on the market until some time this year. Unless there’s a definition of “holiday season” and “on the market” that escapes me, HD-DVD blew it.

Realistically, the hardware and software both need to be in stores by September or October if they’re going to be significant during that holiday season. Assuming there’s no surprise combination of the two formats, the 2006 holiday season may be the initial bloodletting in a battle that consumers may or may not want to take part in.

That’s not the real reason for this particular Trends piece. High-definition DVD is still a waiting game, although the technology is well understood. The issue here is mostly one for the tens of millions of people (probably including a few of you) who have already purchased high-definition TV sets. (That is, sets capable of showing at least 720p broadcasts at full resolution, which means having at least 720 picture elements vertically and, for wide-screen TVs, at least 1280 horizontally. Most HDTV is broadcast at 1080i, which involves rescaling for 1280x720 sets. The highest definition is 1080p—and sets that legitimately show that resolution just came on the market in time for, you got it, the 2005 holiday season. Such sets should have 1920x1080 resolution; examples are Sony’s new SXRD rear-projection sets at $4,000 to $5,000.)

So you have a high-res TV. Your DVDs look wonderful, scaled up from 480p to whatever your TV shows, but you may know that DVD only produces 480p resolution—much better than the up-to-480i of standard-definition TV, but nowhere near what your set’s capable of. You’ve got your checkbook ready to buy one of those high-def DVD players and watch the best movies in true high definition, like looking out a window on reality.

Does your set have an HDMI connector? There’s a pretty good chance the answer is no, particularly if it’s more than a year or so old.

Guess what? If you answered no, then as things stand at this writing, you won’t get high-def DVDs. You can buy the player and you can buy the discs—but what you’ll see is 480p, same as on current DVDs. The sound may be better and the encoding might be cleaner, but there won’t be much visible difference.

The villains are our old friend DRM and movie companies’ paranoia about amateur piracy. (Not true piracy; real pirates can get around the DRM or have sourced their phony DVDs from their friends within studios anyway.) HDMI includes strong DRM. Right now, it appears that players will be forbidden to produce high definition through any connector except HDMI. For everything else—component or DVI—the player will gracefully “down-rez” the picture to regular DVD quality.

So you paid the big bucks to be ready for the ultimate movie experience right away? So sorry; you lose. If you wonder why some pundits think that high-def DVD might stall for quite a while, that’s another reason besides the format war.

…To Go With Your High-Def TV?

There’s another gotcha for some of you with existing high-def TVs. Most broadcast and cable HDTV you see is 1080i, as already noted; the “i” stands for “interlaced.” That means you get 540 lines (every other line) in one pass (a 60th of a second), then the other 540 lines in the next pass, making 30 frames per second of 1080-resolution TV. Old-style TV is also interlaced, but with a maximum total of 480 lines. Your set is supposed to take the two 540-line “frames” and weave them into a single 1080-line picture.

Unfortunately, that’s not what some TVs do. Gary Merson ran tests on many current HDTVs using special test patterns (as reported in The Perfect Vision 64, December 2005) and found that most HDTV sets currently on the market don’t weave a 1080-line picture. Instead, they “bob”—they upconvert each 540-line field to 1080 lines and show it independently. You’re not getting the resolution you paid for.

The problem should go away over the next year or two, as more powerful processing chips take over the marketplace. Right now, according to the report, four companies claim that their sets properly “deinterlace” or weave: Hitachi, JVC, Pioneer, and Toshiba—and all of the sets from those makers passed Merson’s tests, except for one small Toshiba display that it “sources” from another company.

RSS Advertising?

You might want to look at Geoff Daily’s article in EContent 28:11 (November 2005): “Feed the need: The state of RSS advertising.” Unlike most writers, he gets one point straight in the opening sentence: “While the Internet is often referred to as a medium, in reality its role is that of a dynamic environment through which various media are implemented.” He then goes on to note “one of the most nascent forms of Web-enabled media,” RSS. I’d argue that RSS is also not a medium; it’s a transmission route for several different media. (Oddly, he also assumes use of a desktop aggregator; I’d guess that by now web-based aggregators and aggregators built into other web services dominate the field.)

So where there’s a medium there must be ads, right? Maybe not in books and sound recordings, but everywhere else. “As more consumers realize the timesaving benefits of being able to scan numerous Web sites for new content quickly via an RSS reader, it’s no surprise that advertisers are clamoring for new ways to reach those eyeballs.”

Feedster estimates that by the time the article appeared total RSS ads would amount to $1 to $2 million a month. There’s a claim that Forrester shows RSS adoption rates of only 2% of internet users (can that be right? or is it that only 2% of internet users know they’re using RSS?), but advertisers always want to reach a growing market.

Do you want ads in your feeds? Charlene Li of Forrester takes a typically businesslike approach: Ads are wonderful. “I think in RSS, I want to hear about ads and information as long as I know and trust the advertisers.” So you’ll only get ads from companies you “know and trust”?

Some aggregators are all for it. NewsGator notes that it can tell an advertiser who’s reading particular content—what could be better? And advertisers know that readers explicitly opted in to the content, similar to magazine subscribers. But, although magazines are the model one Forrester analyst likes to use, magazines are different: You can zip right past the ads when you’re reading articles, then go back to them later if they’re interesting. Maybe that would work with ads embedded in RSS ads—or maybe, as Li suggests, “that feed goes bye-bye” if the ads are intrusive.

You could get ads from several points: The feeds themselves (as ads within posts or as separate posts), from the aggregator, or via feed search engines using something like AdSense. NewsGator thinks you’ll see ads from all three sources.

Feedster embeds ads in its search feeds, but only one ad per feed (and if there’s nothing new from the search, you won’t get a new ad). Of course, you might actually sign up for an ad feed in some cases, if the ads mention bargains.

There’s already been one legal hassle, with a blogger claiming Bloglines was “reproducing” his blog, stripping it of contact info, and adding its own ads. That’s interesting; so far, I’ve never seen Bloglines ads—and “stripping it of contact info” is pretty much inherent in aggregation. But the question continues, who has the right to put ads into RSS? If RSS really does become the dominant form of internet content traffic, it’s a question that will have to be answered—and yes, you’ll probably have to put up with advertising. Or, if you’re a hotshot blogger, you may want RSS advertising for revenue.

Powerline Broadband

Broader broadband? That’s what Michael J. Miller uses in the subhead for a “Forward Thinking” piece in the November 22, 2005 PC Magazine, in which he bemoans the fact that only about 42% of U.S. households have broadband. He notes a couple of “citywide WiFi” initiatives—but he seems most pleased with a power-line broadband system being installed in Manassas, Virginia. “Each household will get a modem that plugs into an electric outlet and connects to an Ethernet cable. Connections are 300 to 800Kbps for just under $30 per month.” He ends by talking about “faster broadband” that’s “affordable for everyone”—but I’m not sure how the Manassas system qualifies. 300Kbps is faster than dial-up, but even 800Kbps is slower than the slowest DSL service most phone companies provide, to say nothing of most cable broadband. As for $30—well, with the cable-vs.-DSL competition around here, at least, most DSL customers apparently wind up at around $20 to $25 a month (after a $15/month initial period).

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 3, Whole Issue 73, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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