The HD transition is still a work in progress - and it's happening more slowly than expected
The reshuffling of console offerings and price points by Sony and Microsoft in recent weeks has had a number of consequences - some more surprising than others. UK commentary has tended to focus on the unexpected price rise for the 360 Arcade model, which has actually raised the base level cost of entry to the current gen console market - but another move which has raised eyebrows is the decision to bundle very basic AV cables with both the slim PS3 and the new Xbox 360 Elite model.
What this means is that, several years into the console generation which was meant to herald the glorious arrival of high definition, not a single console system is presently being sold with an HDMI cable in the box. Microsoft, at least, bundles a cable which can output component, which does enable some HD resolutions - the PS3 slim simply doesn't come with any HD-capable cables at all.
Vocal consumers have voiced disbelief at the move, and many in the industry haven't been far behind. After all, years of visiting friends' houses to discover previous generations of console hardware plugged into perfectly decent TVs with dreadful composite cables or, worse, RF adaptors, have taught us that most consumers will use whatever cable comes in the box and never bother buying a new one. Aren't Sony and Microsoft selling themselves - and this entire generation of hardware and software - short?
Perhaps not. From the perspectives of these companies, they want to include the cable which will be of most utility to the largest group of consumers possible, and it's clear that whatever research they have done suggests that the majority of consumers don't need - or rather, can't use - an HDMI cable. Neither firm wants to put an assortment of cables in the box "just in case" - each additional cable erodes millions from the firm's profitability, after all.
So something - and I'm going to assume that it's detailed research, rather than a cost-saving hunch - leads Sony and Microsoft to believe that the lion's share of their consumers aren't going to be plugging their consoles into HD-ready, HDMI-equipped TVs. But this is late 2009 - hasn't the world gone HD yet, as we were all led to believe it would?
Supporting evidence that all is not well with the HD transition comes from Epic Games' Mark Rein, who told Eurogamer earlier this summer that "over half the users who played Gears of War 2 so far do not have HDTVs".
Gears of War is a core gamer franchise, beloved of early adopters and the soi disant hardcore. If less than half of those users are playing on HDTVs, what must the percentages be like for games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer - let alone Singstar and Buzz, or popular movie tie-in titles?
Listening to the vocal minority of upstream gamers who post on internet forums and make their voices heard, one would think that HD had reached a high degree of market penetration and that SD television remained only as a rapidly disappearing relic of the past. The reality, however, is that the landscape for HD television is still extremely fractured.
We've known for years that HD televisions were routinely being sold to users who didn't know that they needed additional hardware and cables to actually see HD programmes and content. It's extremely common, even today, to walk into a home and see an expensive HDTV hooked up to a DVD player (non-upscaling) and a standard definition cable or satellite box. The owners are often convinced that they're watching in HD, simply by virtue of owning a HDTV.
What's becoming increasingly clear is that the inverse is also true. HD content players - such as games consoles - are being sold to households that don't have a HDTV suitable for them, and are therefore being left to run in SD. In cases where a consumer owns both a HDTV and a HD console, there's a strong possibility that they've used the wrong cable or the wrong settings, and are getting an SD picture anyway. It's interesting to wonder to what extent this problem also afflicts Blu-Ray players, and may even fuel the lukewarm consumer response to BRD technology.
Faced with this reality, a few conclusions are inescapable. Firstly, Nintendo - as so often in recent years - is the company left laughing all the way to the bank. Sony and Microsoft bet heavily on HDTV adoption to drive their console sales, and many commentators confidently predicted that Nintendo would suffer for its decision to stick with SD technology in the Wii.
Now it seems that the expensive HD hardware in the Xbox 360 and PS3 is sitting idle in a majority of those consoles, a fact which also makes the oft-repeated suggestion that Nintendo is preparing a "Wii HD" revision as a matter of urgency seem a little silly, to say the least.
Secondly, the industry needs to rethink its approach to the HD transition. It was widely expected that the transition would be pretty much done by this stage, but the reality is that legacy devices and cables are holding it back - and the recession hasn't done any favours to the uptake of new televisions either.
Things will get worse before they get better. Sony and Microsoft are both comfortably through the early adopter phases now, and as a result, the percentage of HD-enabled customers is likely to fall sharply as they sell more and more consoles. The first 20 million consumers to buy each console were probably fairly tech-savvy and quite likely to be ready for HD. The next 20 million, however, will be far more likely to be plugging the Xbox 360 into an SD set, or using an inappropriate cable - or, perhaps most notably, plugging the console into a smaller TV in a bedroom.
For developers, this simply means that ensuring that games play well in SD resolutions is going to become increasingly important. For platform holders, it's an even bigger challenge - if the Xbox 360 and PS3 are outputting in SD, their perceived advantage over the Wii is eroded even further. They will have to compete on interface and experience (as they are attempting with their motion control solutions) rather than on visual fidelity.
The bottom line is this - the HD transition cannot be spoken of in the past tense. It's still happening now, much more slowly than many commentators seem to believe - we're probably less than halfway through, and the second half will be much tougher and slower than the first. It makes talk of a transition to 3D seem even more premature - let's try and get the last transition finished before we worry about the next one.