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Just when you thought it was safe to buy a blu-ray player


The last week saw some serious signs that Blu-Ray could win the high-def DVD war over HD-DVD. Many people have been waiting for somebody to win the war so that they don't end up buying a player and a video collection in the format that loses. (Strangely, the few players that supported both formats tended to cost much more than two individual players.)

Now there's a report that the new profile for Blu-ray will obsolete many old players. So even those who made the right bet and didn't get a PS3 may be just as screwed.

Something amazes me that has amazed me since the days of the first Audio CD players in the 80s. The Audio CD redbook format was defined early, and it was a lot of work to get reasonable combined audio + data disks because of it. And long after burnable CDs became popular (and into DVDs) it's been the case that many home players can't read the disks at all until they are "finalized" and unable to take more data. There were many other problems. And that's not itself the problem, as there will always be demands you don't anticipate.

But it's not as though these devices don't have a readily available means by which to be given new programming. They have a drive in them, and it would have been easy to issue CDs or DVDs with signed new firmwares on them. Indeed, since the disks have always been vastly huge compared to the firmwares of the devices they played on, it's usually been the case that a disk wishing to use a new format could probably include new firmware for every known player in a small part of the disk. That's certainly true for blu-ray.

Now of course if a player doesn't have enough memory or CPU or graphics power, you can't update it to do things it simply isn't capable of doing. But you should be able to always update it to understand at least the structure of new formats, and know what they can use and what they can't. Of course, all updates must be signed by a highly protected manufacturers key, so that attackers can't hack your firmware, and the user should have to confirm on their remote that they want to accept the update. And yes, if that key is compromised and people don't insert a disk with a revocation command on it quickly enough, there can be trouble. But it's better than having players that slow down progress in the business.

(And yes, I realize that many early CD players did not have rewritable firmware, since ROM was cheaper than EEPROM and flash didn't come along for a while. But it would have been worth it, and there's no excuse for not having safely flashable firmwware today in just about anything.)

And on another rant, I've always been amazed at the devices that do allow firmware flashing but don't have a safety mechanism. There are many devices, some still made today, that can be turned into "bricks" if you flash buggy firmware, in that you can no longer flash new firmware. Every device should have, in unwritable storage, the most basic and well tested firmware reloader that can be invoked if the recently installed firmware has failed. Some devices have this but it's taken a long time.

While I don't really seek a game machine because it would suck up too much time, it may be time for a PS3 as a Blu-Ray player. They are not much more expensive than the standalone players, and of course do much more. If I wanted a game machine it would probably be a Wii. We found one this year for a gift for the nephews, but they got another one so I ended up selling it for a $100 profit on Craigslist, the prevailing market being what it was. Made an Egyptian boy very happy, as they are very hard to get over there.


Are you suggesting that, if J. Random CD player has a
flashable ROM, that it should be upgradable to become
a DVD player with just some new firmware? Aren't their
issues with other parts of the hardware -- like the
laser and perhaps the drive mechanism? Isn't this
particularly true for the new Blu-Ray & HD-DVD formats?

No, he's saying that a CD player could be upgraded to
a better, or at least newer, CD player, a DVD player
upgraded to a newer DVD player etc. (Of course, blu-ray
could only be upgraded to newer blu-ray and HD-DVD to
newer HD-DVD---before someone thinks that flashing an
HD-DVD could turn it into a blu-ray player.)

In particular, if most devices were flashable, then the world need not be so upset in innovating with the format because it has to worry about the large base of players who won't understand the format. And in fact, as people became more and more aware that flashable players did not go obsolete as fast as fixed ones, they would demand them in the market.

(They could also have fixed security holes in their DRM, perhaps, so this is not all an upside. :-)

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