Sony is riffing on its wide-open 4K distribution strategy at CES. After announcing vague plans for 4K distribution at its press conference, Sony’s been filling in the details in more private conversations with members of the press that show just how unsettled the market for 4K content really is.
Sony CEO Kaz Hirai compared 4K distribution to Sony’s Video Unlimited service when asked if the planned online 4K content service would be exclusive to Sony customers. “We should be able to bring it to anybody, but again that is a key differentiator from a Sony perspective… for the time being that is something we bring exclusively to our customers.” If you haven’t heard of Sony’s Video Unlimited service, that’s because it’s remained essentially exclusive to Sony customers for years, and hasn’t found the mainstream success of other locked-in platforms like Apple’s iTunes.
A physical format might sound like a good stop-gap, but Kaz doesn’t think 4K distribution will go that way
It might seem early for an internet-based 4K distribution platform given that even Sony admits the massive downloads might take days, but Sony does have some experience with 50GB downloads in the realm of PS3 game distribution. When speaking to us today, Kaz called the adaptation to these long download times a “journey” for consumers that will hopefully be eased eventually by fatter internet pipes to the home.
A physical format might sound like a good stop-gap, but Kaz doesn’t think 4K distribution will go that way. “I don’t see that as being physical media,” he said.
We’ve been told that Sony has had loose discussions with Panasonic — its partner in crime in pushing the original Blu-ray standard — about a higher capacity Blu-ray disc for 4K movies, but so far there’s no consortium or official negotiations pushing for a standard.
“I think as the industry evolves 4K, [it] might decide that a disc format might be something that the consumers are looking for,” Kaz admitted to us. “But at this point, before we get into that sort of format, we’re looking for distribution through the network.”
But there are other 4K standard talks to be done in the near term. Kaz said the industry needs to come up with “certain standards,” like basic file formats for when consumers plug a 4K camcorder into your TV, but “if we’re talking about competitive feature sets, that’s a different story.”
Sony has a history of pushing hard for its own file formats, often at the detriment of the industry and consumers
Of course, it’s unclear how big the “competitive feature sets” umbrella is — Sony has a history of pushing hard for its own file formats, often at the detriment of the industry and consumers. And there are “competitive feature sets” on the flip side as well: Samsung is showing off exclusive 4K Netflix streaming here at CES.
One example might be Sony’s 4K mastered Blu-rays: because Sony uses its own algorithms to downscale 4K content to 1080p Blu-rays, Sony TVs will upscale that content to 4K more accurately than other 4K TVs might.
Ultimately, 4K needs a standard format, and will likely get one. The big question if a company like Sony is ready to work hand-in-hand with other companies to bring that standard to consumers sooner rather than later. If it chooses to lord its exclusive movie studio content over its competitors, wall off distribution in its own online service, and cling to its own codecs and algorithms, the industry might be in for another bloody format war.