The New Laserdisc

April 30, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Back in what I'll call "the VHS era," there was an alternative means for videophiles to get their fix - the laserdisc. Despite delivering suprior picture and audio quality than a standard videotape, the laserdisc never gained mass popularity. The main reason was that it was too bulky. At about the same size as an LP and twice as heavy, it was unwieldy. Also, unless you had a home theater setup of sorts (pretty rare in those days), the difference between VHS and laserdisc wasn't staggering. The smaller the TV set and the less impressive the speaker system, the closer in quality the two were. In fact, on an 18" set with no external speakers, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Nevertheless, there were enough enthusiasts to keep laserdiscs alive. It was the DVD, not VHS, that killed them.

DVDs started becoming popular in 1997. By 1998 or 1999, they had eliminated laserdiscs as the format of choice for home theater buffs. A few years later, they effectively eliminated videotapes. (Technology marches in strange ways. I can remember when VHS was new and exciting.) DVDs possessed three major qualities that allowed them to supplant VHS. They were more portable and durable. They were cheaper. And they offered enough of an improvement in quality that even those people with 18" TVs and no speakers could tell the difference.

Now it's time for the next chapter to be written. The problem is in determining who the starring character is going to be. For a long time, it looked like high-def DVDs were going to be the next hot commodity. But now I'm betting they'll be the new laserdisc. There are significant issues that will likely prevent HD-DVD (or Blu-Ray) from achieving the kind of widespread accceptance enjoyed by conventional DVDs. The format war is only the tip of the iceberg. Players are expensive, and likely won't come down in price the way DVD players have. At this time, a majority of consumers don't have the equipment to support HD anything. And, perhaps most critically, while high def DVDs represent an increase in video/audio quality, it's not as dramatic as one might expect (certainly nothing close to what was gained by changing from VHS to DVD). It's better, but is it worth upgrading a system for? Is it worth re-buying a DVD collection (or a portion of one)?

Most consumers are probably going to answer this with a resounding "no." They're happy with conventional DVDs and the mild upside of the high def sibling won't be enough to lure them into the new camp. But the die-hards - those who adopted laserdiscs 10-15 years ago, will jump in feet-first. It's unlikely that high def DVDs will fail. But expecting them to have the same kind of success as DVDs in the late '90s and early '00s in not realitistic.

The longer the format war drags on, the more problematic any adoption of high def DVD will be. That's because the next generation of video - downloadable, super-quality movies - isn't far off. I'm not referring to the rip-offs about to be offered by the studios for $20 a pop. I'm referring to the next generation of on-demand movie-watching, where computers and video systems merge and massive libraries of stored content are available in soft copy. How far in the future is this? Five years? Seven years? No more than ten... When that arrives, it will represent the beginning of the end of the DVD, both conventional and high def. The longer it takes everyone to agree on one high def standard, the shorter the lifespan of the format will be. That's something to consider when you go holiday shopping this year.