Will Changing Technology Rain on Blu-ray's Parade?
Downloading, which has already available, is the method by which you merely order any title you want from an Internet-based service and save it to your hard disk drive. Audio stores offering such services have been around for a few years and video on demand services have begun as well, but I can't see them supplanting Blu-ray as the best method for playing back high definition programming for several years, if ever.
The problem for high definition downloads is bandwidth and storage space.
After all, if it can take several hours to download 50 gigabytes worth of data (the current storage capacity of a Blu-ray disc), if you're expecting "Video on demand" you aren't going to get it that way: you'll need to plan your movie night accordingly, which makes a mockery of the term video on demand.
And of course you need to have 50 gig worth of storage space handy for just such emergencies. That's up to 50 gig per movie. If you want to have any kind of a library, that can add up pretty quickly.
Big hard drives are pretty cheap, and getting cheaper all the time, but a hard disk drive is only part of the equation: you still need a device that'll hold the disk and download the movie to it. Currently, you can get high definition PVR's like Dish Network's vIP622 or, in Canada, Bell ExpressVu's 9242 HD that could do the job for you, but they don't support Blu-ray's full 1080p high definition yet.
And for good reason: they're designed primarily for recording high definition TV signals, and no one transmits 1080p HDTV yet. This could change down the road, but it'll undoubtedly take years.
Then there's the issue of portability. If you want to download a movie and take it to a friend's for a movie night, you'll need to haul your storage device with you – along with its cables and stuff. This makes a compelling argument for a physical medium that's self contained and which you can slide into a pocket – something like a disc.
Downloads will undoubtedly be increasingly popular over time, and they're a legitimate choice, but I can't see them ever taking over completely from some kind of "hard medium". Besides the issues I've already mentioned, there's the simple fact that many people like to have a physical copy of a title, to build their own library. Some people have wall units full of titles they're proud to show off – and that let you peruse them leisurely.
It's true that you can build a library using a server, storing everything digitally, but that still doesn't let you actually pick up the package and read the liner notes or whatever – or lend it to a friend.
And don't forget the potential for a hard disk crash, which always happens at the most inconvenient time. Lose your hard drive and you lose your library. I'm willing to bet the Hollywood studios who got the money for your downloads aren't going to cut you any slack if you come crawling to them for a replacement copy due to technological snafu. They don't seem particularly philanthropic when it comes to their "intellectual" property.
Heck, they already treat you like a potential thief when you buy legitimate copies of their wares, by inflicting ever more sophisticated copy protection on their customers as well as forcing them to sit through insulting and usually-unskippable anti-piracy messages.
So in my never humble opinion, physical storage will be here for a while.
But there's competition coming even here that could see Blu-ray's supremacy threatened some day. Discs, after all, are read by machines with moving parts, using laser beams. All of that is a recipe for disaster, eventually, as parts wear out. My first progressive scan DVD player has already packed it in, and I'd like to think it was built better than the $30 units that are now piled up as impulse items in bargain bins.
Someday in the not too distant future we'll use more efficient storage media such as new generations of flash memory, USB drives, memory sticks and such. Or something that has yet to be introduced to the consumer market. Flash memory is making great strides already and 32 gigabyte cards have been announced. That's about the capacity of the now dead HD DVD, so the potential is definitely there.
But for now, let's enjoy Blu-ray as the prices for its hardware and software drop and the library of titles increases. It's a good format that offers incredible picture and sound quality, and it should have at least a few years in the sun.
Copyright 2008 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.