The Death of Blu-Ray, 2030 A.D.

January 07, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Since the present isn't high on my list of things to be excited about, let me speculate about the future…

Two questions I am frequently asked: "Do you think Blu-Ray will have 'legs'?" and "What will replace it?" Both worthy questions, to be sure.

At one point, during the height of the format war, I believed high-def DVDs were destined to become a "niche format," akin to what laserdiscs were during the VHS era. The degree to which both consumers and content providers have gotten behind Blu-Ray during the past 9 months has surprised me and forced me to change my thinking. High def DVD will at worst co-exist with its older DVD sibling. More likely, it will continue to leech market share away from the standard DVD until the latter, while not disappearing altogether, will no longer dominate home video. How long will this take to happen? Perhaps as little as five years and no longer than ten years. Consider how short it took DVDs to knock out VHS. In 1996, few consumers had heard of DVD. In 2001, DVD players were becoming as familiar as VCRs. In 2006, VHS was pretty much dead. The fact that Blu-Ray players are backward-compatible (meaning they play standard DVDs) will keep the DVD format alive and healthy, at least for a while. It's comforting to know that my entire DVD collection, which is substantial, has not become obsolete overnight.

Eventually, however, even Blu-Ray will need to give way to the next generation of home video. What will it be? Super high def, with pictures of greater quality than 1080 lines? Almost certainly. The TV market is driven by two factors: screen size and weight. We're looking for bigger pictures on lightweight TVs that can be mounted anywhere. The bigger the picture, the greater the need for better resolution than 1080p. And it may be that a super high def movie will be too big to fit on a standard, multi-layer Blu-Ray disc. So something else will be needed.

Many people believe downloading is the next step and I agree with them, to an extent. But I don't think it will be the kind of downloading that exists today. What we're seeing now is primitive compared to what the future will bring. Download speeds are painfully slow. If I want to watch a movie, do I want to wait hours for it to download? Plus, while it's more convenient to store hundreds of movies on a really big hard disk than on shelves in a "video library," what happens if/when the disk fails? Is my entire movie collection suddenly gone? (Ideally, it would be backed up, but how many people would neglect doing that? How many people regularly back up their computer hard drives? Backing up a 5 TB movie collection could be expensive as well as time consuming.)

Here's what I envision: move the storage to a remote location. There's no reason for me to have copies of hundreds or thousands of movies in my house if I don't need them to be there. As long as I can see whatever movie I want whenever I want and have DVD "functionality" (pause, rewind, fast forward, skip ahead or back, etc.), I don't need to have a copy. Let me pay a monthly subscription fee, much like I pay to my cable company for cable TV or high-speed internet, to connect to a "movie provider." That provider will have thousands upon thousands of titles to choose from, from the hottest new releases to obscure international titles. For $50 per month (or whatever), I would have carte blanche to watch anything. Concepts of rental and ownership would essentially become meaningless. The only reason to own movies would be to avoid paying the monthly fee. And, ultimately, how cost-effective would that be? (I suppose the answer relates to how much a subscription would be.)

There are two drawbacks to this movie-lover's utopia. The first is technological. We have to get to a point where content downloading is nearly instantaneous. If I want to watch Citizen Kane, I should be able to choose the film and push play and the movie would start immediately. If I wanted to skip to the end, I should be able to get there immediately. Essentially, I'm talking about streaming super high def video without glitches: a major bandwidth hog. But to hold the naysayers at bay, consider that in the early 1990s, people were using 14.4 kb/s modems. 15 years later, the thought of employing something so primitive is ludicrous. Where will we be in another 20 years? Fast enough to make downloading from a remote location as seamless as playing a movie that exists locally? If there's money to be made, the answer will be "yes."

The other potential issue is psychological. Since movies started to become available on videotape in the 1970s, people have loved the thought of owning copies. It makes the experience more personal. Moving into the future, will people give this up? It will be difficult enough for some people to transition from a disc they can hold in their hands to a file on their home media server. But giving up ownership altogether? Buying not a copy of a movie but the right to watch it for only as long as you're paying your subscription fee? Yet, as big a hurdle as that might seem to be, people's inclinations and tastes change over time. The deeper we move into the electronics era, the less important tangible things become. Books are being replaced by e-books and CDs by e-tunes. The only thing that keeps movies from fitting neatly into this bracket is their size.

I don't claim that this is the answer for the future, nor do I necessarily believe that 2030 is the year when it will happen. Based on my current knowledge of the direction in which technology is migrating and other considerations (being in the research sector of the telecom industry, I can speak with some intelligence, if not authority, on this subject), this is a possibility. As for the time frame... consumers will not migrate away from DVD to the "next format" until they are convinced that they are upgrading. VHS did not take off until Beta was dead. DVD's path was not clear until DIVX was removed. The mass movement into Blu-Ray did not occur until HD-DVD had been ground underfoot. If downloading is indeed the next step along the digital road, there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved via some sort of standardization or consolidation.

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. For a future like this, I'll give up my DVD collection in whatever year it becomes a reality.