News from the format wars (HD-DVD and Blu-ray) broke at CES as a who’s who list in consumer electronics manufacturers unveiled specific—and not so specific plans for high definition players in 2006. While LG and other manufacturers committed to the Blu-ray standard announced they will have players this year, it looks as if the HD-DVD format will seize the first-to-market high ground with a solid ship date, MSRP and channel partners in place. This gives the HD-DVD camp the important first to market advantage that Blu-ray may find difficult to overcome as the debate shifts from one of specifications (speeds and feeds) to early market penetration, customer eyeballs and all important consumer mind share.

HD-DVD proponent Toshiba showed two players ($499 and $799) with a solid March-06 delivery date thus validating the promise in the minds of the consumers and press. Going a step further, on-line retailers, Best and others are accepting pre-orders today, from customers for March delivery, and Best Buy, Sears and Tweeter, all announced plans to carry the HD-DVD players and new format films in their brick and mortar stores beginning in March.

On the content side, the HD-DVD promotion group sponsored a press event headlining speakers from CE, IT, Hollywood, and the retail channel; the event was set to build momentum for the new format as the studios announced a combined 50 top selling titles will be available by product launch with over three times that number shipping by Christmas 2006. Participants at the event included Toshiba, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Universal Pictures, New Line Cinema, HBO and Warner Home Video and Studio Canal also announced content will be available from their multi-language film vault in the HD-DVD format.

Microsoft’s contribution was also highlighted in its X-Box 360 external drive to be made available to millions of existing X-Box owners—giving the format an instant market base boost. The company also said it will build infrastructure to support HD-DVD format in its new Windows Vista OS and as if this wasn’t enough, the format is also gaining early hardware manufacturers support from HP, Toshiba and NEC with AV notebook and desktop PCs featuring HD-DVD drives.

The Blu-ray front did its best to promote the technology with over 20 companies at CES announcing plans for BD products, including players, high-definition computer drives, recordable media and PC applications. What was seriously lacking from this camp was substantial launch dates, pricing and channel roll-out plans.

CES showed us the HD-DVD group is doing its best to gain first to market status, with the goal of quick market penetration leading to market dominance. The group is seeking to move the discussion in the format wars away from spec sheets, speeds and feeds, beyond the questions of superior technology, like disc capacity and data transfer rates. Whether Blu-ray manufacturers know it or not, it is now a horse race for the mind share and eyeballs of the consumer, and early reports in from CES seem to indicate that the HD-DVD camp is first out of the starting gate and taking a lead in that race.