NEC Ships Hybrid Blu-ray/HD DVD Chipset

In what sources are describing as the first serious attempt by a major electronics firm to bridge the arguably short technology gap between Blu-ray and HD DVD, NEC Electronics revealed to the Japanese trade publication AV Watch today that it is now shipping an LSI chipset that incorporates all the logic necessary for manufacturers to produce either HD DVD or Blu-ray players and recorders.

Naturally, this has led many to speculate that a hybrid high-definition disc player/recorder for both formats could be in the works. But at present, the number of consumer electronics manufacturers committed to producing such a device is zero, with the recent waffling by LG Electronics over whether it actually said it would produce a hybrid player by the end of the year.

According to an English-language translation by the publication CDRInfo, samples of the two-chip set are now available at 10,000 yen (about $83.55 USD), with mass production expected to begin by the end of the fourth quarter of 2006. The company, according to the translation of the AV Watch article, expects to ship 300,000 units per month by next April.

With no single manufacturer committed to hybrid drives, it would actually appear NEC's motivation isn't really to enable hybrid drive production - although this could happen anyway. Instead, NEC may be more interested in simply creating a single, mass-produced chipset for high-def device manufacturers.

Last March, electronics producer Atmel created the first System-on-a-Chip (SoC, another form of a chipset) that encapsulated all the necessary logic for Blu-ray and HD DVD players (not yet recorders), under last spring's specifications. Atmel's SoCs are apparently selling well enough, even though no one is producing hybrid drives.

When a logic chip manufacturer can produce fewer types in higher quantities, it can reduce its own costs, drop its own prices in turn, and sell more units to more customers. In today's market, if an LSI manufacturer produces a Blu-ray-only or HD DVD-only chip, it automatically limits its outreach to half the market. So many of next year's players and recorders from NEC's customers could end up being tuned to play one high-def format, even though they contain both the logic and the laser diode for the other format.

Another extremely important revelation from NEC's news this morning is that its hybrid chipset also contains the full logic for implementing Advanced Access Copy System (AACS) copy protection, which is formally supported by the architects of both HD DVD and Blu-ray even though the first players for both formats left this scheme out.

Once implemented, AACS will enable users to connect their players and recorders directly to the Internet, ostensibly so that they can enter into a sophisticated bartering process with content providers as to whether they can make backup copies of discs they've purchased. Content providers can allow or disallow copies on a case-by-case basis, through an AACS process with the historically confusing title "mandatory managed copy" (MMC).

Even though the final AACS specification has been completed, content providers and electronics manufacturers who participated in the process continue to disagree as to what MMC will actually mandate. While content providers contend it will make certain they have final say over whether copies can be made, manufacturers state it will certify the user's right to make copies of legitimately purchased discs, once they've been authenticated.

In either event, AACS inclusion could conceivably create a whole new ballgame for high-definition content, as it becomes feasible that movie studios could enter into the direct sales business. Under this model, consumers would simply download purchased content directly through the AACS Internet stream, bypassing video stores and rental outlets.

It's believed that the final AACS scheme retains one of the more controversial features that had been under debate: the ability to self-destruct. If an AACS-equipped device determines it's being used to circumvent copy protection, it could conceivably flash the chipset with noise data, rendering the entire player unusable until professionally repaired.

Such a determination would depend on how the player/recorder handles encryption schemes. NEC said today its chipset will support CSS -- which has already been notoriously defeated in the DVD realm -- as well as CPRM encryption for DVD-R and DVD-RW, and VCPS for DVD+R and DVD+RW. With those schemes in its arsenal, it could very well have all the self-destruct codes it needs.

NEC's hybrid chipset, once mass-produced, could become the carrier for a new wave of content control, albeit at a lower cost to the consumer. But it might not necessarily mean a resolution to the high-definition format war is at hand.

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