By the time you read this some of you may be planning to be first on your block with Blu-ray, but you still have time to reconsider. We saw the first round of Blu-ray and HD DVD products at CES Consumer Electronics Show last January in Las Vegas. But there might be some surprises in store for the second round of products that may have some early adopters wishing they’d held out a little while longer.

Blu-ray looks to be the hands down winner of the format war with more industry support and an earlier release. But connecting the dots to several events since CES in January seems to outline a picture of a unified (HD DVD + Blu-ray) product sooner than anyone suspected.

Blu-ray will beat HD DVD to release. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment announced in late Feb that seven of its films (along with one by MGM Home Entertainment) will hit store shelves on May 23rd. This strategically coincides with the release of the first Blu-ray player by Samsung. The BD-P100 will be available at Circuit City, Best Buy and select specialty retailers on the same day as the announced movies.

The first salvo of films to hit the market on May 23rd will include the following:

* 50 First Dates (Sony)
* The Fifth Element (Sony)
* Hitch (Sony)
* House of Flying Daggers (Sony)
* A Knights Tale (Sony)
* The Last Waltz (MGM)
* Resident Evil Apocalypse (Sony)
* XXX (Sony)

Soon afterward on June 13th we’ll see:

* Robocop (MGM)
* SWAT (Sony)
* Stealth (Sony)
* Species (MGM)
* Legends of the Fall (Sony)
* Terminator (MGM)
* Kung Fu Hustle (Sony)

So far the retail prices for the first commercial Blu-ray discs should be set to 23.45 for new titles (including Underworld:Evolution) and 17.95 for catalogue films including Hitch and Fifth element.

Don’t be too quick to break out your wallet for the first Blu-ray products that hit the market. It’s usually better to exercise some patience when it comes to bleeding edge technologies.

In late February Sony and NEC announced a merger of their respective optical storage businesses. The creation of “Sony NEC Optiarc Inc” might not seem so suspicious. After all, many of the big consumer electronics firms have been merging optical storage businesses. Among them Hitachi / LG recently merged theirs and Samsung / Toshiba have been happily making optical storage products since 2003.

But that Sony owns the Blu-ray format and NEC backs HD DVD raised some eyebrows. Even stranger was Sony’s admission that it would probably produce some HD DVD players under the new name.

Then in early March a memo was leaked from the LG’s VP of sales Bob Perry. It said the BD199 that had been demonstrated at CES would not ship as planned this spring. Instead LG is planning a fall release of an HD DVD / Blu-ray combo player. LG has made no formal announcements about such a device.

Samsung made its intentions clear that it would like to produce an HD DVD / Blu-ray combo player back in January. But Samsung North America’s VP of Marketing denied the possibility. HP (Hewlett-Packard) has said since December that it wouldn’t take sides in the format war and would support both. Then at this year’s CeBIT digital trade show in Hanover on March 9th LG and Fujitsu-Siemens told Reuters they planned to support both formats also, sidestepping taking a stand in the format war.

As nice as it would be to get your hands on a new Blu-ray player and a copy the Fifth Element on May 23rd, you might be slapping yourself in the forehead the following fall. The most often reported story in the optical format war is exactly which companies support which side. But the story between the lines seems to be which manufacturers aren’t taking sides at all. Conditions indicate a great possibility of a unified product sooner than we might have first suspected.