I applaud HD DVD amends by Best Buy, Ciruit City

Today, Best Buy announced they are offering $50 gift certificates to 200,000 customers who purchased HD DVD players in light of the fact that Blu-ray Disc is now, by default, the high-definition optical disc standard for consumers after manufacturers and almost all movie studios decided to no longer produce HD DVD products. The gift cards are being sent out automatically to most customers who purchased HD DVD players after Toshiba announced that it was abandoning the format on February 23, according to a New York Times story.

Earlier this month, Circuit City also began accepting HD DVD returns from its customers. I believe both retail stores are making very good business decisions in alleviating some of the frustration many consumers must feel over owning a defunct format. Best Buy and Circuit City will certainly reap some future returns in customer loyalty. But it goes even beyond just a business decision. It's just the right thing to do, something HD DVD's main backer failed to do. 

I was incensed when I read Toshiba's response when asked whether it would offer refunds to people who purchased their  players (note: I own neither HD DVD nor Blu-ray). Some Computerworld readers took issue with my opinion, comparing the latest format war to the battle between Betamax and VHS in the 1970s and 1980s. Their point was, if you bought Betamax, did you then expect to get your money back? I for one, didn't. 

But the Betamax, VHS battle dragged on for 10 years. So when people purchased Betamax players, the majority had time to enjoy it before its defeat to VHS. The battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD was over in less than two years, meaning early adopters of HD DVD saw their technology killed off all too quickly. Toshiba's excuse for not offering some payback to customers was this: Hey, the players work just fine, we're not responsible for the fact that there'll be no new media to play in them (I'm paraphrasing, of course). Graciously, Toshiba also said it would "assist customers in understanding the benefits of the products."

Let's look at some of those benefits. HD DVD owners can still play movies that came out in the format, and they can even purchase titles now for how ever long the supply lasts. The HD DVD owner has a DVD upconverting box in their player, which, while not offering nearly as high a resolution as the blue-laser, next-generation format, is generally better than standard DVD. In fact, if you're still interested in owning an upconverter DVD player, HD DVD boxes are selling for $99 at Best Buy and other retail stores. Get 'em while they're hot!

But those "benefits" are hardly consolation for the fact that HD DVD no longer has a sustainable future. People who were "bleeding edge" consumers and purchased HD DVD players early on in the format war took on the greatest monetary risk. The players were expensive, but the videophiles purchasing them also knew they were taking the greatest risk. When prices dropped below $200 in the second half of 2007, there was more of an incentive to become a "leading edge" consumer, and Toshiba and other manufactures knew that -- they were promoting it. Toshiba announced it was slashing the price of its HD-A3 player from from $299.99 to 149.99 on Jan. 15, after Warner Bros. pulled support for the format.

I like what Best Buy's president, Brian J. Dunn said today: “We’re very committed to moving from a transactional to a relationship space with our customers. We don’t want to leave customers hanging.” And hanging is exactly what many consumers are.

Many of the dozens of readers who commented on my last column, which asked Toshiba and others to at least offer a credit or rebate to HD DVD customers, didn't feel they deserved anything. That's certainly an understandable view point. They bought the product, it works, and they knew what they were getting into. But I believe there are also  thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of not-so-savvy consumers who really didn't know what they were getting into. Just the other night, while at the video store, a man at the counter asked why he couldn't find any HD DVD movies for his player. The manager couldn't give him a good answer. I finally stepped in and told him about the high-definition DVD saga. The manager knew about the war, but he still hadn't heard the outcome.

For all those consumers who believed they were buying a technology with a substantial lifespan, I again call on manufacturers to offer some form of refund or rebate.

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