Blu-Ray's Death: Rumors Exaggerated

January 13, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

I have received so many e-mails about my previous ReelThoughts entry ("The Death of Blu-Ray, 2030 A.D.") that I thought some kind of follow-up might be useful. This is one of those rare instances in which a fully interactive comments section would have been helpful.

The following comment has been at the root of many of the responses: "I long for the day when I can sit down in front of a wall-sized screen and have my choice of 20,000 movies to watch. Owning a physical copy is meaningless if I can see what I want to see when I want to see it." "Aha!" some writers have commented with all the enthusiasm of Archimedes in his bath. "But that day is already here. Netflix already offers on-demand viewing. And if you buy their computer-to-TV adapter (for $99), you can instantly begin watching any title available in a special download section."

There are a few issues I want to address. First and foremost, I am aware that Netflix currently has a streaming video option that allows films to be watched "on demand" on a TV. So do many cable companies (without the adapter). But there are a host of problems, some of which I will address presently. The bottom line is that, while the Netflix model can be viewed as a highly primitive template for where we may be headed in the future, it is by no means an indication that we're there already. To use a video game analogy, today's ultra-sophisticated PS3 games are to tomorrow's home movies as Pong is to today's Netflix model.

First, I'll admit to a mistake. The number 20,000 was a poor choice. It should be closer to 50,000. Netflix claims 100,000 discs (movies, TV shows, special feature discs, etc.), but there's a fair amount of padding in that total. In the 100-plus history of motion pictures, there have been between roughly 70,000 and 80,000 published features made across the globe. Of those, 10-20% are lost or otherwise unavailable for conversion to home video, and another 20-30% are not yet available (although there are not legal or physical impediments). Ultimately, that means about 50% of the total number of titles are currently on DVD, or perhaps 40,000. The point is not to question the Netflix 100,000 but to explain that what I'm looking for is a mammoth selection - almost every movie title that I could imagine. (I'm not overly concerned about TV shows - I can take them or leave them.)

Currently, the Netflix downloadable library is small, at least compared to their overall selection. At last count, it was around 15,000 (movies+TV), but buyer beware. A lot of highly desirable movies are not to be found. Of course, none of these titles are in high def, but even if they were downloadable in 1080p, that wouldn't fulfill my future prediction.

For Blu-Ray to go away, there has to be something demonstrably better to supplant it. That means a significant increase in quality, convenience, or (most likely) both. The problem is that, when it comes to downloading, quality and convenience are at war. An increase in quality uses up more bandwidth and decreases the ability to stream movies, especially in a seamless fashion with no bottlenecks or glitches. Compressing the video and audio enough to limit the necessary bandwidth results in smoother streaming but poor picture and sound quality. This is where an infrastructure upgrade is necessary, as well as advances in signal processing. Once those things are in place, it will be possible to stream huge amounts of data without crashing the system, but we're not there yet. And we won't be for many years. So, at this moment, any hope of streaming 1080p in a smooth, flawless manner that allows full Blu-Ray type access (including multiple audio tracks and one-button special feature availability)for tens of thousands of remotely selectable titles is a pipe dream. It's not reality, and what Netflix offers isn't close, unless you're not demanding when it comes to the quality of the picture of what you're watching. Netflix's on-demand service may look fine on a computer screen or a small TV, but try watching it on a big screen and see if you're impressed.

But I don't think full downloadable 1080p is even enough to kill Blu-Ray. It will offer competition, but not eliminate it. To do that, high def needs to go to the next level. 1440p may be the next stepping stone. Some future-looking monitors are considering supporting that (including Organic Light Emitting Diode screens, which are viewed in many sectors as being the likely flat-screen of choice in about 7 years, when the price gets to a reasonable level), but 1440p is supportable on a Blu-Ray. Theoretically, the disc has enough space, although longer movies might have to be split over two discs. New players would be necessary (ones that could output at 1440p), but the physical media could remain largely unchanged.

But what about cutting-edge UHDV (Ultra High Def Video), a format that is being toyed with in labs (and is getting more attention in Japan than elsewhere)? This offers 16 times the quality of 1080p. I'm told it's amazing. Commercial applications (primarily medical imaging) may be available in as short a time span as 3-5 years. But there are problems. It's a gargantuan bandwidth hog. Uncompressed, an average movie could easily demand 1 TB of space (or more). Even if a 67% compression rate is possible, that's still 300-400 GB per movie. Multi-layered Blu-Ray discs can handle up to 50GB. Incompatible.

For entertainment applications, UHDV isn't close to being ready, although it represents something of a current Holy Grail. (Once achieved, it will then be supplanted by another Holy Grail, as is always the case with any kind of technology. Once it's on the shelf, it's obsolete.) An optimist might argue that UHDV might be available at some expensive level in 10-15 years. 2030 sounds about right for when its availability could challenge Blu-Ray.

Could there be an interim solution? Could something, like a Flash drive inserted directly into a port on a TV, bridge the gap between Blu-Ray and downloadable? Yes, especially if the bandwidth issue becomes an unsolvable problem. (The challenges are significant because infrastructure upgrades, which are costly, are needed.) Flash cards would be able to handle the memory requirements of UHDV and would be smaller and more portable than discs. Plus, they would still provide the ability to "own" a movie, which eliminates a psychological hurdle that exists with downloading, especially from a central repository.

So those are a few more thoughts based on my understanding of the future video landscape. In any case, I don't see Blu-Ray going away in 5 or 10 years, as some doomsayers are predicting. There's no commercially viable alternative and the market abhors a vacuum as much as nature does. High quality, high bandwidth downloading, of the kind necessary to kill discs, is a far distant thing. And, even if there's a physical stopgap, that's still not on the immediate horizon. While it's true that multiple formats may co-exist over a period of time (as with laserdisc and VHS or, currently, standard DVD and Blu-Ray), the knock-out blow isn't forthcoming in the near term. And what Netflix currently offers certainly won't be delivering it.