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Dare to be Stupid: Is Blu-ray the next Laserdisc?

Posted on Jul 15, 2008 by | 11 comments

Growing up during the Eighties I was a first hand witness to the bitter battle between VHS and Betamax for supremacy of the budding home video market. My family carefully avoided this format war for years, predominantly because of my father’s educated unease with buying anything during the early adoption phase. You see my father is an engineer and he has taken the rational, methodical and utterly boorish position that new technologies should be avoided on early release, to allow the engineers ample time to work the kinks out.

So it was several years after VHS had scored a decisive victory before we finally owned our very own VCR. It was so long after the Beta/VS battle had been decided that not soon after acquiring our VCR that Laserdisc became the new leap forward in technology for home theater enthusiasts. Needless to say, Laserdisc never wrestled away a big enough foothold from VHS for us to ever purchase a player.

Despite the superior technology, the Laserdisc format failed for several reasons. Both the player and the disc were quite bulky and cumbersome. They also weren’t getting much help from the studios, resulting in a dearth of mainstream titles available to watch, though niche distributors like Criterion flourished. And perhaps most importantly, they were incredibly expensive. While Laserdisc struggled to stay afloat eventually another technology came around that was smaller, sleeker, had massive studio backing and was much cheaper. While DVD’s were not a leap forward in technology, but it certainly was the more appealing option. Which brings me to Blu-ray, the clear winner in the recent format war with HD-DVD. Or was it?

Not to be defeated after losing is previous format wars Sony took several bold steps in an effort to win this skirmish. The most documented decision being the inclusion of Blu-ray players with every Playstation 3 console. Thus using the console as a loss leader in an effort to gain a huge lead in market share. That early lead ended up being a clear factor in what ended up being a much shorter race then anyone anticipated. So now the prevailing opinion is that Blu-ray will lead the industry until the next format war occurs years down the line. But I have had two primary reasons to not upgrade to a High Def format that existed before Blu-ray triumphed, and nothing has convinced me to alter my reasoning, victory or no victory.

The first is that I already have a large collection of DVD’s that I quite like, and I really don’t enjoy having to force them into obsolescence. And judging by the rather unimpressive dent Blu-ray has made in the home video market it seems like much of the US shares this belief. Also, the amount of money one must invest in an HDTV and a Blu-ray player is a very difficult sell with such a stagnate economy. Then toss in the additional $10 per film for a format that is only a slight upgrade over DVD’s for everyone but those owners who pay through the nose for top of the line HDTV’s and you have a format upgrade that borders on being obscenely expensive to implement. So is this market trepidation due merely to the substantial financial investment, or is the market simply unconvinced of Blu-ray’s claimed superiority.

But while DVD’s are the current king of the hill, the Internet is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. That is until Netflix unveiled the Roku player. A system that allows any Netflix subscriber to watch any of the available films in their growing catalog for no additional cost. That means for just $100 a subscriber is instantly able to download and watch a film digitally, much like if you get ShowBox app for your phone. Thus bringing me to my second point, that true digital distribution is the next step for films, not Blu-ray.

With the continuing drop in the price of hard drives and online storage, the ability to download and store films grows cheaper by the second. And while currently the Roku player is not capable of distributing films at a higher resolution then 480p, better resolution is on the horizon. And once consumers are able to download and watch 1080p movies in th comfort of their own home Blu-ray will lose its one technological advantage, which then reveals Blu-ray to share many of the same faults that plagued Laserdisc. Compared to digital distribution and storage Blu-ray is bulky, cumbersome, inefficient and incredibly expensive. But along with those, Blu-ray offers another negative that previous formats didn’t have to deal with: inconvenience. Not the inconvenience of being a hard to find format, but rather inconvenient for those who demand instant gratification. And in a culture and medium that continues to place greater demand on such easy accessibility, this could be the thorn in Blu-ray’s plans.

It is even quite telling that Microsoft has recently announced a plan of partnering with Netflix to distribute their films electronically through the X-Box Live online platform. Microsoft, who went bust when they bet on HD-DVD, have clearly moved on to a medium that plays to their strengths and the consumer’s wants and desires. The future of HD movies is certainly here, and it isn’t Blu-ray.

Matt Gamble
I review movies. I run a movie theatre. I annoy people. I let my dogs lick my face whenever they want. Sometimes I'm even a halfway decent human.
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11 Comments

  1. This analogy between laserdisc and Blu-Ray is rather apt, but there’s one glaring thing about the analogy: the advancement (of course, this is where the analogy breaks down). Laserdisc technology was far superior to VHS compared to Blu-Ray’s minimal increase over DVD. Laserdisc offered for the first time spotless digital quality picture and sound, never having to rewind ever again, and (my favorite part) bonus features. I guess this doesn’t relate entirely to the article here but I thought it needed to be said.

  2. I’d agree that Laserdisc is clearly a huge technological leap forward compared to VHS, but even with that their were areas where VHS was superior specifically in cost, studio support, and most importantly the ability to record. The studio support and low cost are easy to cite, but a primary reason why VHS beat the superior Betamax was because you could record for a longer time with VHS tapes. While you could record with Laserdisc, the recorders were incredibly hard to find and far more expensive then the regular players. While the technology should have made Laserdisc the clear winner, its inability to pull even in the battle of convenience is a large reason why it inevitably lost.

    Blu-ray still isn’t as convenient a medium as DVD, though Sony certainly is making huge strides in this area, and it will never be as convenient as digital media files.The film industry should be paying attention to the music industry to see what will happen once digital distribution takes over, the entire landscape will change as soon as the need to own physical objects evaporates. And I’m quite convinced this is going to happen much sooner rather than later.

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. the internet is definitely the future. even tho apple tv hasn’t taken off like they probably would have liked, it’s already making HD content available with one click and straight to your tv.

    to be honest though, i think the real wave….will be things like the “vudu” box (not specifically, but it’s a start in the right direction)…or more on demand type releases through cable companies. stations/studios like IFC are already releasing films straight to pay per view. i like the netflix model….but i think where it fails is requiring an account to access content. i think it’d be more non-cinephile friendly if you could also have the option to pay per view (maybe you already can? and i missed it?). either way…i think i personally would rather invest in a medium through the internet when the time comes…..versus blue ray and all that jazz.

    but oh man, i can’t wait till the day that blockbuster is dead!

  4. As far as I know Netflix is sticking with the subscriber system, but I wouldn’t be suprised if they started offering single film downloads for a small cost.

    I know several small Independent studios are offering direct downlaods, and including pdf files so you can print out labels and packaging if you want a physical DVD for your shelf. If something similar to that isn’t the future I don’t know what is.

    And you go Blockbuster. You keep investing in mortar and brick buildings as your empire crumbles around you. You totally deserve it!

  5. No way will Blu-ray be next Laserdisk IMHO. With the Ps3, HDDVD dead, this will rise, its just a matter of time and cost, as the cost comes down, it will go up in users and DVD will go the way of VHS. Blu-ray players do have a nice picture though looking at it on a HD TV

    • The problem is they don’t have time. Instant HD downloads are already available for low cost, newly released films are already available in HD on pay-per-view and the PS3 is lagging in 3rd place in the console wars, while the 360 supports HD streaming through Netflix. Microsoft essentially let Sony throw all in with Blu-Ray, they quickly shifted over to downloadable HD, thus trumping Sony’s play and making Blu-Ray already obsolete.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. As someone with a Roku netflix player and a sad little XBOX HD DVD player collecting dust, my best guess is that while Blu-ray will never gain the anywhere near the traction and market share of DVDs, it won’t be dying out any time soon either. I’ve already seen my video watching habits reorganizing into a hierarchy: for my favorites, as well as a few select films of particular visual/auditory spectacle, I’ll spring for the (HD)DVD or (Eventually) Blu-ray, everything else is divided up into “willing to wait for the DVD from Netflix” and “willing to settle for the slight drop in quality to watch right now.”

    Blu-ray, with its reference quality picture and sound, will stick around for the AV geeks and OCD collectors, but the inevitable bulk of our viewing will be via the streaming set-top box. After all, people are willing to settle for the minor flaws of MP3 over (SA)CD and DVD-A.

  7. Just happened across this article while browsing for something else. Ah, HD DVD… how I miss you so! The funny thing is that the future of BD is still so up in the air given all the download services now.

  8. 1. Many companies are now selling blu ray/dvd bundles like disney.

    2. The internet will push rental and casual viewing from movies. However a dvd/blue ray is a physical object, you own it. People that used to get something for 5 in a bargain bin or rented movies will move onto netflix.

    3. Consider this by now home video should have displaced movie theaters… but they have not. I think there will always be a physical medium format.

  9. hm…a couple of flaws in your argument. firstly, it is not very expensive to own a tv that will allow you to see a noticeable difference between dvd and blu-ray picture quality (nor was it at the time that this article was written; my parents bought a high end toshiba rear projection 65″ hdtv nearly a decade ago for $1000 brand new…and yes it is high end enough that blu-ray clearly looks superior to dvd). secondly, while netflix is a great alternative in the sense of convenience and general quality, it does not offer the same level of quality that a blu-ray disc offers. you lose quality simply by the fact that it is streaming, regardless of whether it is streaming in hd. there are always going to be people out there that want the best, and who feel that the cost and relative inconvenience of buying and owning a physical disc is worth it. third, having one option doesn’t necessarily mean foregoing the other. our first (and only) blu-ray player is a panasonic dmp-bd85k. this player has the functionality to stream netflix wirelessly out of the box, which is not an uncommon or expensive feature these days, and it does a great job at it, i might add. the unit cost under $200 shipped when we bought it nearly a year ago brand new from amazon.

    don’t get me wrong, i love netflix. i watch things on netflix much more than i watch blu-ray movies, even though we can rent blu-rays through the mail for a low monthly fee. even though blu-ray is clearly a superior format to netflix streaming, netflix has one more thing going for it, and it is the same thing that dvd still has going for it: most people are completely content with the quality and feel that it is good enough.

    oh and, one more thing, blu-ray is definitely not the end all be all. while blu-ray does offer uncompressed reference quality audio, it does not offer uncompressed reference quality video. this isn’t really a problem right now, however, as blu-ray does offer complete 1080p resolution, which is what even high end hdtvs of today support. but, in the future, whenever they need high resolution 3d (or, eventually, holographic) video, blu-ray simply will not be able to offer full resolution uncompressed video to match. that’s where holographic versatile disc (or possibly something even more exotic) will have to step in:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holographic_Versatile_Disc

  10. I feel DVD is good enough, and I am very against Blu Ray.

    (1) SONY is NOT to be trusted. They bait us with backwards compatible players. BUT, while PS 3 was backwards compatible AT FIRST, people continued to buy PS 2 games, and SONY STOPPED MAKING IT BACKWARDS COMPATIBLE! They could do the same with Blu Ray. And it’s what the studios want so in this recession we have to buy all our films over again.

    (2) While I confess that this has not been put into practice, SONY has a device that would format the disc TO PLAY ONLY ON ONE DEVICE. This means if your player goes, all your discs are now worthless.

    (3) When we went from VHS to DVD, I can’t recall seeing any VHS/DVD packages. How much can Blu Ray really be catching on, if Blu Ray only feels they can sell their product by including a DVD?

    (4) With huge companies like Microsoft and Apple NOT backing Blu Ray, that’s yet another indication that Blu Ray is not the future.

    (5) An even greater blow for the physical media is that you can go online and see things that were never even released on DVD.

    Besides physical media on the outstage, too many people have seen the corruption of SONY and Blu Ray. I take my hat off to Microsoft and Apple for refusing to join SONY and Blu Ray in this corrupt scam. DVDs are good enough, and the future is online. Blu Ray can be squashed in this hopeless 3 front war, and that’s fine with me.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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