When the first high-definition DVDs finally hit shelves this autumn, a mad scramble may ensue -- not for the discs themselves, but to figure out what computers and devices are actually able to play them in their full glory.
Unravelling the mystery won't be easy. Many, if not most, of today's top-of-the-line computers and monitors won't make the cut, even if next-generation Blu-ray or HD DVD drives are installed.
That's because strict content protection technologies may automatically degrade the DVDs' picture quality, or even block them from playing at all, if the right connections and digital protections aren't in place. Even the most expensive computers sold today mostly lack those features.
Indeed, the consumer backlash has already begun. Graphics-chip makers such as ATI and Nvidia are drawing criticism online for marketing products that are "ready" for these new copy-protection tools but that nevertheless lack critical features needed to let the discs play at top quality.
"This is a sticky issue," said Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group. "It's going to be very confusing for consumers, and it's going to be very daunting" for computer makers.
The copy-protection muddle stems from Hollywood studios' desire to avoid the film piracy that was born when tools for unlocking the encryption technology on today's DVDs began spreading online in late 1999.
Along with a picture quality upgrade, the new generation of DVDs will be shipped with new digital rights management controls, with strict computerised rules attached saying exactly when and how a movie can be played.
For people who buy standalone DVD players and HDTVs, this mostly won't be a concern, as the right plugs will generally already be built in.
But computer buyers will face a far more challenging landscape. The everyday analogue plug that connects most computers to monitors today doesn't support copy protection, and so is viewed as unsafe by Hollywood studios. Movies playing on a computer over this ordinary analogue connection will likely be downgraded to near-DVD quality.
Even worse is the so-called DVI plug that sends high-quality digital signals to a monitor but also doesn't support copy protection.
That offers an even greater risk of copying in Hollywood's eyes. Studios have persuaded Microsoft to add a feature in the upcoming Vista operating system that can shut down that connection altogether, unless the computer has an Intel-created encryption technology called HDCP, or High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, turned on to guard the signal all the way to the monitor screen.
Put another way -- if the DVD doesn't like your plug, your monitor may go black.
A newer connection technology called HDMI almost always comes with built-in encryption. If both the computer and the monitor have this installed, everything should work as planned.
Simple question--will it work?
Today, it's extraordinarily difficult to find information that explains whether a company's products will be compatible with the new DVDs.
Part of the problem is that the copy protection technology for the discs hasn't been officially announced, even though the new DVDs are supposed to hit shelves in just three months. A cross-industry group is working on a technology called the Advanced Access Content System, slated to protect both HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs, and is expected to release its work as soon as next week.
The HDCP technology has widely been expected to be a critical part of those rules, however. In an unusual step, Microsoft told computer makers last year, as part of a preview of its new Vista operating system, that they should start using the Intel-based technology in order to be ready for the high-definition video rules.
IBM engineer Don Leake, who works with the AACS group, confirmed on Wednesday that Intel's HDCP would be approved under the new rights-management rules.
But this opens up a new set of potential land mines for consumers.
In one early example, graphics-card maker ATI has marketed some of its top products as "HDCP ready" and says that its newest "All-in-Wonder X1900" card "gives effortless playback of next-generation HD DVD."
However, it doesn't mention that "ready" probably won't be good enough to make the high-definition discs play at full quality. The graphics systems actually have to have the Intel technology turned on, which has to be done by the computer maker, or by ATI itself when it sells a graphics card at retail.
Nvidia, another big graphics-chip maker, says it too has built support for HDCP into its chip designs but that it's up to the computer makers to turn it on. Almost nobody has so far, and that's drawing bitter criticism from gamers and other hardware enthusiasts online, who call the situation a "nightmare."
"We certainly are concerned over end users, and we want to make sure there is no confusion," said Godfrey Cheng, ATI's director of marketing. "But we leave it in the hands of the board vendors and (computer makers) as to whether they want to put that in."
Much of what happens when discs are finally put into computer will ultimately depend on the movie studios themselves. On each disc, it's up to them to set the rules that make all of these alphabet-soup technologies swing into action.
For example, if studios are worried that consumers might be disappointed by degraded resolutions and blacked-out monitors, they could in theory relax those rules until the approved technologies are more widespread.
Backers of the new content protection tools say they're necessary to keep the high-definition discs at the cutting edge for years to come, however.
"What we're coming out with is something that's probably going to live for 15 years or more," IBM's Leake said. "HDCP, even though not well deployed today, will be well deployed in five years. We are planning for the future."
A glossary of DVD and content-protection terms:
Blu-ray: The high-definition video format backed by Sony.
HD DVD: The high-definition DVD format backed by Toshiba.
HDMI: High-definition multimedia interface, a digital connection technology increasingly used for computers and HDTVs. Usually associated with HDCP.
DVI: Digital visual interface, a digital connection technology often used with computer monitors.
VGA: Video graphics array, the analog connection technology widely used for computer monitors today. Does not support content protection.
HDCP: High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, an Intel-created technology that encrypts content as it passes from the computer to the monitor.
AACS: Advanced Access Content System, a set of content protection technologies that will be used on both kinds of next-generation DVDs.