So high-definition video discs are hitting the stores now and yet again the electronics industry has shot itself (and early adopters) in the foot. Only, I think this is a lot worse than the Betamax-versus-VHS nonsense we all suffered through, or did our best to ignore, and the reason is that there are many ways to get high-definition video already. Who needs a high-def’ DVD, no matter what it’s called?
I don’t. I own a 56″ DLP HDTV. I subscribe to DirecTV HD Programming. I wouldn’t watch a show in anything other than HD, if it’s available. I am truly a HDTV convert. But there’s no way I’m going out and buying one of these Blu-Ray or HD-DVD players anytime soon for several very obvious reasons:
- The cost of the players is ridiculously prohibitive ($1000 for Blu-Ray and $500 for HD-DVD right now). This price will surely come down, but slowly as manufacturers increase production in response to demand. And I predict that demand growth will be very very slow, because…
- You need an HDTV to take advantage of the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD formats. But there are still far many more SDTV sets out there right now. Inevitably, these new formats are relevant to only a minority of video consumers until HDTV displays become more widely adopted.
- How many people do you know actually watch all the bonus material on current DVDs? I watch maybe 10% of the stuff on mine, and not because I’m not interested — I just don’t have the time! The fact that these new formats can deliver greater amounts of time-sucking stuff just doesn’t interest me. I’m a pretty average consumer, so I’m betting I’m not alone in this. Therefore Blu-Ray and HD-DVD’s storage capacities will be of interest only to a niche audience.
- The Betamax/VHS conflict had to be resolved because there was no other way for consumers to get video into their own homes. They couldn’t download it. They couldn’t stream it. They couldn’t search on Google for it. But they can today.
- Competing devices that can deliver digital video to home theaters are already hitting the market — and Apple iTV will make an enormous splash next year. These devices can deliver HDTV directly. (The iTunes Store may only deliver “near-DVD” quality video but I predict that this will change quickly once the site ramps up and Apple sorts out conflict-of-interest negotiations with studios and large electronics resellers like Wal-Mart.)
- Disc production is massively expensive compared to digital content distribution. Discs are also hardware-dependent: Got the wrong kind of player? You’re out of luck. Digital content suffers far less from that problem because it’s software-dependent, which is a much easier and less expensive thing to change as digital video formats change or evolve.
- Adoption of broadband is accelerating all the time. Among owners of HDTV sets, bandwidth exists to download HD content quickly.
So the fact is that we consumers don’t need Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. Not much, at least. The extra storage capacity will be nice for data backups, and the occasional in-depth look at a movie (the Lord of the Rings DVDs, for example, had lots of extra content that I watched and would like to have seen in HD. But in my experience few DVDs have that kind of quality additional content).
The way forward for HD video is for studios and consumers to sidestep the electronics industry’s format games. Buy a Mac Mini, a MythTV box, a Windows Media PC, or an iTV, and get more control over your content. Apple, Slingbox, and others are delivering the devices and software that make it possible today.
The question will then become whether the content producers are smart enough to sidestep the format games, too. They should because they can make a lot more money off each sale, they can get products to market faster, and they can exert more control over the distribution of their content. If studios do “see the light”, Toshiba and Sony and the others will be resigned to serving data-intensive tasks with Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, and consumers can look forward to more liberated content, at last.