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Digital Content Navigates New World Of Devices

Blu-ray, Amazon's Kindle e-reader, Apple's iPad tablet and other technologies are leading digital content in directions once unimagined.

Not long ago a friend and I were marveling at the way everything from movie watching to music browsing had been completely torn down and revamped in the past decade. "We're living in a science fiction novel," he remarked. My response: "Yes, I just hope it's not 1984."

For the latest Apple tablet news, opinion and conversation, be sure to check out InformationWeek's Special Report: Tablet Wars -- Can Apple Three-peat?

The last 10 years have seen more and deeper changes in the way entertainment is consumed than almost all of the 60 years before it. Most of those changes have been instigated by or made easier through technology -- specifically, the Internet -- but they are also reflections of changing attitudes about entertainment. Because there's so much to consume and in so many different forms, the fight to find audiences has intensified. At the same time, it's also shown that content providers are still hesitant about allowing the digital world to completely dictate availability.

In this piece I'll survey three of the major areas where entertainment has gone digital, and examine how licensing and intellectual property concerns have had at least as much of an impact as technology.

Video And Blu-Ray Disc

Unlike audio, which hit the peak of its fidelity on the consumer side decades ago, the jump in quality provided by HD and Blu-ray is dramatic. Quality by itself may not spur casual watchers to convert, but enough momentum is building -- and equipment prices are falling fast enough -- that high-definition displays and media should be the default within a couple of years.

Blu-ray was introduced to provide consumers with a physical carrier for high-def content. They were already getting HD through their cable and satellite feeds, but Blu-ray gave them a way to enjoy such content without a network connection -- and apart from the whims of the on-demand video market, where titles could vanish at any time. Blu-ray players themselves are also eclipsing territory normally staked out by dedicated set-top boxes that deliver on-demand content -- e.g., Netflix, now available through a number of net-connected Blu-ray disc players.

The other big reason Blu-ray was introduced was to offset the slump in DVD sales, proof that said market has become saturated by both rental and video-on-demand suppliers. So far the offset strategy seems to have worked. According to Home Media Magazine, packaged media revenue for video dropped only 1.6% through most of 2009, primarily due to BD sales, which rose 137% over the course of the year, helping offset DVD's 7.54% decline.

Blu-ray's limits as a medium are at least partly rooted in the content available. Many TV shows not shot on film, for instance, will never appear in a HD incarnation; there would be no point. Anything film-sourced is a different story, since the upper bounds of film's resolution are anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 lines. It still takes a certain amount of work to create proper HD masters, though, and many studios' film libraries have HD masters that were only prepared as precursors to authoring the DVD edition of a film.

Fortunately, some companies have been far more forward-thinking in this respect and made the extra effort to convert their backend production flow to consumer-ready HD before Blu-ray (or HD-DVD) was a reality. Warner Brothers' home-video division and the boutique classic-movies video label Criterion, a recent Blu-ray convert, have both excelled in this respect.

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