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. 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.