Gadgets – Reports of Physical Media’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I love computer nerds, if for no other reason than their confusion over why all data isn’t treated the same is utterly adorable. Like saying that DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are going to die out: you’re so cute! I just wanna pinch your cheeks!

Needless to say, I’m profoundly skeptical that the DVD is going to go the way of the CD. And anybody who thinks otherwise should stop and look not at the rise of technology, but where that technology is going.

The first and most obvious problem is not everybody has high-speed Internet, and that’s unlikely to change for a while. It kind of astounds me that people I know can (rightfully) dismiss AT&T’s network with one hand and then bitch about how people haven’t seen the light and store all their media on an HDD. Let’s see here: the most popular solution for downloading movies is on a shitty network. Hmmmm.

The second problem is with penetration. Most people don’t own an iPhone. Most people own a computer, but most of them don’t have a Netflix account. Some people even don’t like watching TV on their computers! Imagine that!

The third problem is purely one of consumer choice. People learned, quickly, that you can’t loan a movie that exists solely as data to a friend unless you stole it. Most people just don’t have the wherewithal to steal movies in the first place, and it’s really not something you should be doing anyway. You can’t drag your Apple TV to a friend’s movie night. You can’t email a friend a Netflix stream. For the vast majority of human beings, that’s a massive negative.

I’m not saying movies won’t be digitally distributed or that two out of three of these problems can’t be solved. Quite the opposite: Netflix has proven there’s a workable digital distribution model, and it’s not like there aren’t plenty of set-top boxes. But there’s an important disclaimer there, which we’ll get to.

In fact I’m fairly sure the future of television is subscriptions and you choose the level of advertising. If you’re willing to sit through fifteen minutes of ads per hour, you can get a season for five bucks. Or you can pay $40 up front and get the whole season ad-free. In the future, what separates high and low class won’t be our clothes or where we live or what we own: it’ll be how many ads we watch.

But it’s that third problem, the one of consumer choice, that will keep digital distribution a second-class solution when it comes to video content. Nerds can refer to music, but music is a vastly different case.

The entire reason downloading music exploded is that everything was in place to cater to the consumer except some sort of pay structure. You had an easy-to-use software setup. You had a ridiculously huge selection of content. And, most importantly, you had an easy-to-use method to create physical media. MP3s took off because everything was in place to give the consumer exactly what they wanted out of music: an a la carte experience that was easily used and easily burned. The only thing Apple did was come along and make using the software even easier.

Seriously, post in the comments how many mix CDs you’ve gotten from friends from about 1999 onwards; we can probably get that number up to four figures in ten comments or less. Half of my CD collection consists entirely of music CDs that were probably burned from illegitimate MP3s.

Movies are a different matter. A high-quality movie file is in the gigabytes, whereas a high-quality music file is in the megabytes. To give you an idea of how problematic this is, I own about 300 to 400 movies. Let’s say they’re all on standard 8 GB DVDs.

That’s between 2 and 3 terabytes of information. That’s on the obscene high-end of storage right now. I’m going to have that much storage to edit movies. Now let’s say those were all Blu-Ray quality files. Now we’re talking, oh, about 20 to 50 terabytes.

So, I can have a bookcase full of discs, or I can spend an hour a day managing a fucking server farm. Which option sounds more cost-effective and time-efficient to you?

So where does Netflix factor into this? Glad you asked. Netflix shows the one place digital distribution will conquer the movies: rentals. Netflix’s streams are nowhere near DVD quality, even at their highest resolution, but they’re good enough for the average consumer. If it’s not a movie they have to own, then they won’t want Blu-Ray quality. But if it’s one they want to watch again and again, they want the best quality possible.

This isn’t to say that we’ll still sell discs out of stores twenty years from now. Eventually, Hollywood will embrace burn-on-demand completely and you’ll get the movies you want out of a kiosk.

But there will still be a disc on the shelf. The only place that puppy’s going is home.

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2 Responses to “Gadgets – Reports of Physical Media’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. Jeff Says:

    One little nitpick – I do a lot of Netflix streaming, and the HD streaming gives me no noticeable difference in picture quality from the Blu-Ray to the HD, and the streams look fine through my 360 on standard def as well. They’re well-past DVD quality on most streams, but I also have a very fast connection.

    • seitzeeing Says:

      To be fair, when you get beyond a certain level of resolution, it’s difficult to tell the difference unless you’ve had training, and on smaller monitors it’s functionally impossible to tell the difference between 720p, 1080p and standard-def, especially if its an upscaled DVD. It’s actually been proven there’s no difference between DVD and Blu-Ray to the average consumer until the TVs hit four feet across, which is part of the reason the CE manufacturers have been trying so hard to sell you a television the size and weight of a small child: once you buy that, you buy the Blu-Ray player, the set-top box, and replace all your DVDs with Blu-Ray for your Blu-Ray player.

      Still, as you said, you’ve got a fast connection. I have a pretty fast one myself, but I’ve never gotten Netflix to give me a stream that was anywhere close to DVD quality. In fact I prefer watching Netflix on my netbook because the crappy resolution looks better on the smaller screen.

      I honestly don’t think truly high quality streaming will hit TVs until the consumer is SO used to HD broadcasts and Blu-Ray discs that they won’t accept anything less than flawless 1080p streams.

      How that’ll be pulled off is another matter.

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