Exit One Format War, Enter Another - InformationWeek

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2/19/2008
09:00 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Exit One Format War, Enter Another

The news is in: Toshiba is throwing in the towel for HD DVD, leaving Blu-ray Disc as the carrier for next-generation home video.  Now comes the next format war for video: physical media vs. digital downloads.

The news is in: Toshiba is throwing in the towel for HD DVD, leaving Blu-ray Disc as the carrier for next-generation home video.  Now comes the next format war for video: physical media vs. digital downloads.

To be honest, the writing's been on HD DVD's wall for a while now -- and judging from an article in The Digital Bits about the conclusion of the whole matter, Toshiba has been preparing to do this for some time now -- yes, even before Netflix, Wal-Mart, et al. made their announcements that they were throwing their weight behind Blu-ray.  The nails were in the coffin and the dirt was being smoothed over the grave for some time now.

This brings up the next question: Will digital downloads be the real next-generation carrier for high-definition media, as seems to be the case with the music industry?  The answer for now: Not terribly likely -- or at least, not in the immediate future, and not exclusively.

In some ways, though, it's already started to happen.  Netflix's Watch Now, despite being standard-def only, is a great addition to its existing rental service and is gaining traction fast.  Xbox Live has turned out to be a surprisingly strong contender as well, which led many to believe (myself included) that Microsoft's stake in the format war was provisional at best and mainly consisted of a holding action against Sony, while at the same time betting on downloads as being the next step.

The problem doesn't lie with downloads as such but the network required to deliver it to us, at least in the United States.  The amount of bandwidth required for a high-definition movie positively dwarfs the amount of bandwidth needed to deliver whole albums in MP3 format.  American broadband networks need a major overhaul before casually delivering 20 GB to 40 GB or more can be a realistic goal -- and given how hidebound our telecoms are, what're the chances of that happening in a timely fashion?  A physical carrier sent through the mail -- or picked up from the store -- is still perceptually faster.  There's also the issue of storage: if your Xbox dies, so do all your downloads, which then have to be tediously re-obtained.  A physical disc is a lot less prone to that kind of loss.

So for now, a physical disc is still the way to go.  It certainly stands to be that way for all those who've invested in the hardware to make Blu-ray viable -- both consumers and manufacturers alike.  But to me, the disc vs. download clash revolves around the issue of what we really buy when we buy a piece of media: a bunch of relatively transient bits, or a physical carrier that embodies the product (and the bits that represent it) -- or something else entirely?

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