Who Will Be the Next Mayor of Pompeii?

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Choose your champion: Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. Just understand that whoever wins will still lose.

The fight between rival DVD formats will most likely end with the extinction of disks as video devices, as downloaded and on-demand movies become the vehicle of choice for a new generation of viewers. "Every month this battle wages, more and more people are getting used to getting video in other ways. That's the real enemy of this indecision," Richard Doherty, an analyst with Envisioneering, tells Reuters.

Let me fire up my old DIVX player and tell you about the glory of obsolete formats. As an absolute cheapskate, I get the bulk of my movies from the public library (even though, as a libertarian, I believe public libraries are a crime against humanity and I should be indicted for using one). Thus I still make frequent use of VHS cassettes, and I can tell you there's nothing worse than watching VHS when DVD exists. Nor is on-demand necessarily a step up: Last night I watched an on-demand showing of the Jim Kelly kung fu/blaxploitation/voodoo/jetpack picture Black Samurai, and it looked as bad (washed-out print, lousy sound transfer, obvious edits for content) as anything from the bad old VHS-only days. By any yardstick, DVD has been a Jolly Green Giant step forward. If there's a secret culprit in the end of the video disk, it may not be the forward march of technology but the DMCA regulations and onerous copy protections that have made disks a geek-unfriendly formatโ€”a point only Bill Gates manages to raise with Reuters:

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates backs HD DVD and has called Sony's Blue-ray format "anti-consumer" because of a protection scheme.

"The inconvenience is that the (movie) studios got too much protection at the expense of consumers and it won't work well on PCs," Gates was quoted as saying in an interview with The Daily Princetonian earlier this month. "You won't be able to play movies and do software in a flexible way."

Still, Gates said he regarded the debate over the formats almost as an afterthought.

"Understand that this is the last physical format there will ever be. Everything's going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk," he said. "So, in this way, it's even unclear how much this one counts."

The problem for me isn't just the extinction of the format but the fact that we're nearing the end of yet another medium without the studios' having tried to exhaust their libraries in any serious way. I'm not just talking about really obscure stuff: What kind of world are we living in where Nicholas Ray's cautionary tale Bigger Than Life, a Gillespie favorite with James Mason as a mild-mannered schoolteacher driven mad by cortisone treatments, has never been available on any home-viewing format? Where is the DVD, or the VHS, or even the laserdisc, of the 1932 version of Madame Butterfly with Cary Grant as Pinkerton, Sylvia Sidney as Cho-Cho San, and a script by Joseph Moncure March? A world without a home video version of Ernst Lubitsch's last film, the sterling Jennifer Jones girl-plumber dramedy Cluny Brown, is what Krusty the Clown meant when he said "survivors would envy the dead." The beauty of DVD was that it coincided with and helped inspire vast institutional support for exploiting back catalogues. Gone were the shitty prints and full-screen atrocities of the VHS era; in came the vogue for complete collections, crisp transfers, and rediscovered sleepers. But the job is not yet done, and I suspect the market for DVD will run out before the back catalogues do. Whatever the hell Blu-Ray is, I already hate it because it slows down the rollout of the back catalogues. They're fighting over the deck chairs on the Titanic. (Speaking of which, James Cameron guarantees that the new Titanic ultimate DVD is the absolutest finalest most ultimatest Titanic DVD yet.)

Pictures of Gerry Todd, the original king of video, here.

PS: I didn't really have a DIVX player but I am writing this post on a manual typewriter, and you're lucky I've run out of paper because I was just going to start telling you how warm my vinyl records sound with all the pops and skips.

NEXT: All Bets Are Off

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  1. Hope you made a carbon copy.

  2. I disagree on the back catalogue part. Blu-Ray means you can buy the entire run of most TV series on 1 or 2 discs. And Wal-Mart will eventually figure out how to make profit selling BR discs for as low as a dollar. Which means eventually I’ll be standing next to the big bin, saying, “all of Kukla, Fran and Ollie or all of WKRP… what the hell, it’s only ten dollars, I’ll get ’em both.”

    I’m also pretty sure whoever writes press releases for Forrester Research is wrong about the speed of hard disk storage’s ascendancy. Broadband still pales next to the bandwidth of the “station wagon full of CD’s”.

  3. All true videophiles know Tim Ishimuni kicks Gerry Todd’s butt!

  4. Last night I watched an on-demand showing of the Jim Kelly kung fu/blaxploitation/voodoo/jetpack picture Black Samurai

    Bullshit, Mr. Han-man!

    Wrt to Gates’ comments, Blu-Ray’s copy protection mechanisms won’t be much different than those found on current-generation DVDs. Though that’s arguably a disgrace in itself. HD-DVD is expected to support a scheme that would allow you to move video content off of a DVD and onto a home-networked PC or portable video player, but only if it has the necessary DRM software installed. Which means that if you’ve already bought a PVP, of for that matter a PDA or smartphone capable of playing back movies, you’re SOL.

  5. I think people underestimate the importance of the collection. People use a lot of things partially for status. And in any case, I don’t trust the movie companies to cooperate with on-demand and hard-drive based movie distribution. They’ll either 1) try to hump my leg by trying to force me to pay 4 bucks every time I want to watch the same movie, or otherwise go to great lengths to pry my wallet open every time I watch something (perhaps time limits on movie purchases). They can’t do that with a DVD. Once its out of the store, it is off their grid. I like it that way.

    As a side note, what are HD’s up to now? 300 gigs? Let’s kick it up to a 3 terabytes… how much space will a super-hi def movie take? How much would a super-hi def tv season take?

    I’ve got a couple of terabytes sitting on a shelf next to the TV. I bought ’em; I own ’em. The movie studios can’t interfere. The player for my DVD costs under a $100— versus a locked down, DRM, hard drive heavy device that might wipe out my whole collection the next time something fries the motherboard. Barring a fire, I can lose one dvd at a time…

    I suppose I’m just a reactionary, but that doesn’t really please me. It has potential, but the content producers are far too anal retentive to let it blossom. That’ll have to change before I give them the power to get into my house.

  6. What about the consumer? What about all the formats to replace audio CD’s?

    I have several thousand DVDS. I’m happy with the quality (just like audio CDs) I ain’t changing anytime soon.

    I’m all for technology (I’m a EE after all), but the consumer speaks the loudest.

  7. and most importantly, when will “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!” be available on DVD?

  8. P.S.
    Porn.

    Unless that TIVO lets users set up secret crypts for storage of material that the spouse/kids/family can’t see (or even realize that there is something they can’t see) and doesn’t leave a billing trail— physical formats will always have a place in the American home (I foresee a day when porn is sold on memory sticks— I think I just had my million dollar idea!!!). And an astute person will always be able to figure it out. (Hmmm… the TIVO has 500 gigs… and there are only 200 gigs of movies …. and yet there is only 100 gigs left…) At least physical storage can get stuffed in the back of the closet.

    Just saying.

  9. Real competition. Pure magic!

  10. There’s still a window for physical media. The requirements of HD Video are greater (and harder on bandwidth and disk space) than those of NTSC video. So there will be a lag until computers have enough space to store it all.

    And even though you can download software off the ‘net, people buy it on CDs (and DVDs). Why? Because those media are more permanent than disks, which crash all the time (which is real ultimate power).

    Disk space hasn’t been increasing at quite the rate of processor speed, and fragility problems have only been somewhat addressed. It’s still a lot, but you have increasing requirements for all your other media (your songs, for example) that need to be stored on this disk. You going to pay $29.95 to download Gone With the Wind to have it disappear in a hard drive crash, or are you going to back it up somehow? And to what? Probably Blu-Ray writeable media.

    Plus fiber optic will have to make a much bigger inroad in this country to get on-demand HD video working for more than three figures of people. Japan may get it before long, but it’ll be years and years before the US has sufficient penetration. Hell, we can only download lots of streaming video now, five years after a company I was in to provide that to you flamed out because not enough people wanted it.

    I doubt physical media will ever go away completely. (Hey! Remember the paperless office? Neither do I!) By the time we get streamable HD Video, we’ll be lusting after some new smell-o-vision or 3D standard that is da bomb but requires data crystals to carry efficiently.

  11. To quote the liner notes from The Simpsons Season 1 DVD set:

    “…With 280 odd shows in the can and no end in sight, you might be able to comlete your Simpsons DVDcollection just before the next format comes along. Thanks for buying!”

    I see this as almost entirely studio and manufacturer driven. As with all formats in the past, they both can’t wait to sell everything all over again in a new format. The problem is, DVDs are really pretty good. There’s the occasional grumble about artifacts, but for the most part, I think people are pretty satisfied with DVDs. I don’t see consumers clamoring too loudly for something better. The people doing all the clamoring are movie studios and consumer electronics makers.

    it may not be the forward march of technology but the DMCA regulations and onerous copy protections that have made disks a geek-unfriendly format

    Actually, I think you have it backwards. Copy protection and the DMCA make it geek friendly in that the average joe isn’t going to know how to get around it, or if they do know there’s a way, it might be too much bother. Geeks are always at the advantage of having the skills and equipment to get around whatever DRM they throw at us. Think of it this way- who is more of a geek- DVD Jon or my grandmother? And who would have a harder time copying a DVD?

  12. There’s still a window for physical media. The requirements of HD Video are greater (and harder on bandwidth and disk space) than those of NTSC video. So there will be a lag until computers have enough space to store it all.

    Yes, the bandwidth and storage demands of HD are huge, and nobody’s even been able to really make the video-on-demand model work well for DVD quality movies.

    And then, video-on-demand leaves out portable and vehicle-based players. Yes, in theory, the disc drives in those players could be replaced with huge hard drives and I suppose you could have a WiMax connection to your car in the garage so you could download movies to it (or pull the player out of the dash), but…this sounds like a more convenient system than just throwing some disks in a case and taking them with you?!? I don’t think so.

    Lastly, there’s the question of DRM. Downloaded HD movies, when that happens, are certainly going to be encrusted with pain-in-the-butt DRM restrictions. You’ll be able to trade, loan, give, or sell ‘your copy’ of a movie to a friend (or on Ebay). Think that’ll be possible with video-on-demand or downloaded movies? No way.

  13. I still want my DVD shelf. How else am I supposed to show how well versed in pop culture I am.

    That being said, an iPod for movies would be pretty cool. If could load in the ones I have and download new ones.

  14. I don’t like physical stuff, because I break it and lose it and there are too many spatial dimensions involved, which cuts into shelf space for books (which do require physical instantiation). I want movies like my Yahoo! Unlimited Music subscription. $5 a month, I can download or stream whatever I like and listen to it whenever (on computer or mp3 player), just as long as I’m paid up. It’s truly beautiful.

  15. I foresee a day when porn is sold on memory sticks

    Leading to inevitable comparison as to whose memory stick is bigger.

  16. Look at the backlash that the record labels have suffered over ‘protected’ cds that won’t play on PCs or “smart” cd players. I think the studios will have to work with the hardware folks to develop some kind of DRM format that isn’t a pain in the ass, or consumer interest will be low–since, as has been noted, DVDs are more than sufficient for most folks in terms of quality.

    Right now, I see no compelling reason for most consumers to switch away from the DVD format. The convenience of downloading is offset by the security and “collection” factors. Most people only want to watch a movie once, and the purchase price of those DVDs with high ‘re-watchability’ has come down sufficiently that even a cheapskate late-adopter like me is buying them now.

  17. I like having things. I guess I’m a fossil. Music is different somehow. I’ve converted to digital, but mainly because there are very few artists that make albums I have to own. Mostly I just want one or two songs. Movies have a different connection for me. I may never watch my Rocky III DVD, but I like to see it and know that Clubber Lang is right there on my shelf. Plus the DVD shelf has replaced or become equal to the bookshelf as a vanity piece in most homes. It?s where you display your tastes, or lack there of, for all your visitors to see.

  18. I don’t think most consumers will rush out and buy Blu-Ray or HD-DVD movies as soon as the formats are intoduced. I think they will slowly replace the DVD as more consumers are exposed to HDTV. DVD resolution is only as good as today’s standard tv. Once the transition to HDTV has progressed further I think more people will want a format that has the resolution of HDTV.

    But then again I could be wrong. A lot of people seem to be satisfied with the low quality of compressed music and DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD haven’t exactly fared well.

  19. Biologist, I love “Alice B.” too (and so does Gertrude Stein).

    “Don’t say ‘bathroom’ and I won’t laugh. Aaaa, I said it!”

  20. “A lot of people seem to be satisfied with the low quality of compressed music and DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD haven’t exactly fared well.”

    I don’t think it’s so much being “satisfied with the low quality” as it is that the perceived increase in sound quality is so microscopic that it isn’t worth blowing the capital costs of a new player and replacing one’s existing CD collection.

  21. The audiophile is increasingly a creature of the past. Most people with high-end systems have a home theater bias, which emphasizes the ‘boom-bang’ audio factor, rather than clarity or a highly realistic soundstage. And, frankly, most pop music isn’t aurally sophisticated enough to really make the high-bit audio formats terribly necessary. Ask a classical music buff about the difference though, and be prepared for a long-winded diatribe about how bad regular cds are.

    As for video, I hadn’t considered the HDTV issue. Of course, until the monitors themselves come down into the price range that us mere working stiffs can afford, it’ll be a moot issue. Maybe I’m weird, but spending thousands of dollars on a fucking TV is just not a priority.

  22. Toxic seems wise on this subject to me. I’m neither an audiophile nor a videophile, and I have never really understood the idea of ‘owning’ a movie to be honest, exempting those, er, movies of ill repute.

    I’ve recently started buying series on DVD, mostly because I haven’t bothered to get digital cable yet, but I can see some value in the stashable collection. I like highly portable devices for plane rides, for example.

  23. Maybe I’m weird, but spending thousands of dollars on a fucking TV is just not a priority.

    You can get a 26″ widescreen HDTV for something like $600 at Best Buy, and a 26″ standard screen HDTV for $400. Of course, that’s more than you’d pay for a regular 26″, but it’s not outrageous. Outrageous prices start with LCD, plasma, and big-screen HDTVs. Get two of the above, and watch the price go through the roof. ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Huh?! I read Slashdot and Hit and Run every morning. This morning you’re talking about DVD formats and they’re talking about investigative abuses by the FBI.

  25. “Plus fiber optic will have to make a much bigger inroad in this country to get on-demand HD video working for more than three figures of people.”

    Fiber optics? You need to step into the 21st century. The second generation of Wimax will have the bandwidth to stream HD on demand to entire cities. Over the air bandwidth is essentially unlimited. Wireless is going to change the world far more than people realize.

  26. You can get a 26″ widescreen HDTV for something like $600 at Best Buy, and a 26″ standard screen HDTV for $400.

    See, I told you I’m a cheapskate late-adopter! ๐Ÿ™‚

    That is pretty reasonable, actually. But then, my wife and I have a single 19″ TV, so that tells you our spending priorities.

  27. In the end it will not matter the vendors will combine the two formats in one drive just like they did for DVD+RW and DVD-RW. That battle went on for four years, then ended in about two months when the technology to combine the two came together.

    The reason these super DVDs are needed is to hold HD television programming. Tivo and PC hard drives are not big enough and people will have to burn to a disc and these are the only two options.

    I disagree with Gates that everything in the future will be downloaded. It won’t, instead you will stream it on demand from Hollywood Video or Blockbuster directly into your TV. It will not reside anywhere in your house because the movie studios think every American secretly operates a DVD video pirating operation in their basement.

  28. Everytime some new consumer entertainment technology comes along, I am reminded of two things. 1. Ralph Kramden saying he’ll buy a TV as soon as it shows pictures in 3D; and 2. Quadrophonic.

  29. be prepared for a long-winded diatribe about how bad regular cds are

    Ain’t THAT the truth. My brother subjected me to one of those, around 1984.

    Anyway, I too am leery of any kind of pay-to-play system – with music or movies. I want to hold the item in my hands, dammit. For example, I used to use iTunes until it finally dawned on me that those songs can only be played on an iPod. Or on as many different PC installations as Apple decides to grace me with.

  30. You guys missed the biggest laugh line in the above post: Bill Gates labeling someone else’s product as “anti-consumer”.

    (Sorry, just having a bit of trouble with Windows lately…)

  31. The second generation of Wimax will have the bandwidth to stream HD on demand to entire cities.

    And the first generation is… how far along? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  32. “And the first generation is… how far along? ;)”

    It’s coming any minute now, I swear.

    Some sage once said that technology is never as far ahead in 5 years as we thought it would be, but always farther ahead in 10.

    I work at the cutting edge of wireless technology. It’s safe to say that it isn’t well commercialized yet because it’s moving forward too quickly to be worth the investment. It’s an interesting problem. At some point the industry will reach a consensus that there is a stable enough platform to move wireless convergence forward, and things will evolve pretty rapidly.

  33. t’s safe to say that it isn’t well commercialized yet because it’s moving forward too quickly to be worth the investment

    And that’s why, despite the appeal of it on some levels, we should be wary of proposals like municipal wireless networks. If the money is spent putting up a city-wide 802.11b/g network, technology is going to be pretty well frozen there for a while.

    Along those lines, I also wonder about an analogy between sattelite phones and wireless broadband. I believe the conventional wisdom was that sattelite phones took too long to roll out and were too expensive, by which time the cheaper patch-quilt of cell phones had already provided a cheaper, “good enough” network for phones. 802.11b/g networks are becoming pretty ubiquitous, if they reach the point of saturating municipal areas, I would imagine wimax might find itself put off another bunch of years.

  34. “And that’s why, despite the appeal of it on some levels, we should be wary of proposals like municipal wireless networks.”

    We should avoid municipal funding of wireless networks like the plague, for a lot of reasons.

    “802.11b/g networks are becoming pretty ubiquitous, if they reach the point of saturating municipal areas, I would imagine wimax might find itself put off another bunch of years.”

    The problem with Wifi is that is very difficult to integrate due to problems authenticating, securing, standardizing, etc. Wimax overcomes all these problems by changing the number of access points from many, disparate, and unreliable, to fewer, standardized, and more reliable. Ultimately, everything (phones, tv, radio, etc.) will ride on a packet switched network on top of Wimax and its descendants.

  35. What is this “Drives aren’t big enough” nonsense. Haven’t you people ever heard of a SAN, or RAID? My friends media raid is up to 1.5 terabytes now, filled with DVD quality movie rips, all of his music, and all of his photos (he’s a professional photographer, and a completist). The raid probably cost him about a grand, but he’s more than made up for it in savings of ripping dvd rentals.

  36. Bago—

    1) we’re assuming legality. I.E. no piracy, therefore little to no savings by going digital.
    2) a grand is a lot. I could buy a dvd player and have plenty left over for a very respectable collection.
    3) 1.5 terabytes— that’s nice. But how many HDTV programs will that hold? For a grand?

    Etc… the analysis stands. If you’re buying legal copies of movies, digital copies won’t save you a lot of money, and the gear necessary to play it is to expensive to justify it. At least for the next few years.

  37. For example, I used to use iTunes until it finally dawned on me that those songs can only be played on an iPod.

    Dammit. This is the second time this has come up, and it’s not true.

  38. Rhywun,

    I used to use iTunes until it finally dawned on me that those songs can only be played on an iPod.

    5 minutes of Googling will fix that for you. Maybe less.

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