Last week the big news, or so it seemed, was that Warner Bros announced they would go all Blu-Ray. The format war is over, was the consensus, and Blu-Ray has Betamaxed HD-DVD. But to me this was a minor skirmish in a bigger conflict, one whose eventual victor has barely begun to enter the fight. While everybody was paying lots of attention to already-archaic disc based physical storage media, the future winner – digital downloads – gained some ground as Netflix announced a new set-top box that would allow subscribers to download movies from the internet and watch them on their TVs.
Digital download is where this is all going. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray are distractions along the way; the truth is that anyone who replaces their entire DVD catalog with hi-def discs is going to feel like a major schmuck in about a decade or less. There are a few hurdles standing in the way of a world where all of our entertainment is streamed to us on demand, but they’re all relatively minor, and they’re all obstacles that are going to be surmounted by the inexorable forward march of technology anyway.
A lot of people reading this will immediately object to a future where you no longer buy physical objects that you store and display, but the truth is that these people are in the minority. Ten years ago I had more or less finished replacing my vinyl with CDs, and I couldn’t picture a world where I would ever want to get rid of all those discs sitting on so many shelves. Even when Napster came along, with its novelty and its ease of use and its freeness, I figured that people would still want to buy CDs. They want those liner notes! They like owning the thing! Except it turns out that they don’t. The whole world of music distribution is being turned upside down by the fact that people don’t mind getting their music online, and while they’re happy to pirate it, they’ve also been proven to be happy paying for it. All those CDs I used to own? They’re in boxes today, their only function in life to hold up my bedroom television. Many of them are ripped on to my iPod, and the ones that aren’t… well, let’s just say that if I decide I want to listen to Touch Me I’m Sick and it’s not on my iPod, there are easier ways for me to get it than to dig through the boxes. I buy CDs occasionally now, but I’d rather download my music, and I like it when someone offers me a reasonably priced way to do it legally.
Here’s the rub when it comes to music and movies and ownership: people have been owning music on physical media for decades now. Our grandparents bought records. Fuck, Edison invented that shit. But it took just a decade for the change to happen, for people to essentially begin abandoning the buying of CDs (I am aware that a lot of people still buy CDs. In this case the change is like the old cliche about turning an aircraft carrier around; it’ll take you some time. But we’re at a point of no return with the music industry, where digital delivery is becoming utterly mainstream and not just for early adopters/hipsters/cutting edge techies). Now compare this with movies, which we’ve only been owning in a real way for about a decade. Before DVD, VHS tapes were rarely priced to own at first release. Only serious movie people had big collections of pre-taped VHS movies. But with the incredibly low price point of DVDs, everybody could build a library of their own. Still, they’ve only been at it for the last ten years or so, and if a decades long attachment to physical music delivery could be severed so quickly, the way people buy movies will change much faster. Just this past weekend, Bill Gates sat down with Reuters and spelled out the reality of the current format war: ‘In the long run, people don’t want physical media. You don’t say to yourself, what’s the format battle after CD. If someone tried to introduce a new music format, you’d laugh and say ‘well isn’t that my phone, my iPod and my Zune?’ And you’d be right.’
I have to admit that my life is better without the CDs, at least in terms of my environment. All of a sudden I have space where there was none before. And I’m looking at my DVDs, which tend to clutter areas and quickly outgrow their shelving, with a longing for them to be gone as well. Who am I showing all these things off for anyway?
The key to digital download conquering all is ease of delivery. The new Netflix system still isn’t quite there – you attach a Netflix box to your TV and your computer and then you log onto their site, choose a movie and watch it on the TV – because people want to do it all with one remote control. The Xbox Marketplace has something very much like that perfect system, where you can sit on your couch and quickly and easily scroll through movies, pick one, wait a few seconds for the download to hit a certain point and then start watching. I blew through all of Survivor: China like this; it was just so easy to get the next episode that I couldn’t figure out a good argument to not do it (besides the whole ‘Why are you spending a whole night and afternoon watching Survivor?’).
Like I said, there are still obstacles. There’s the fact that America’s internet needs to get faster, and it needs to reach more people. Then there’s going to be digital download’s own version of the format war, which will be about how stuff is distributed. It is a sale model or is it a rental model? Will it be like some new internet music services, where you pay a monthly fee for access to streams of thousands and thousands of songs? The battle’s already begun as Fox has forced Steve Jobs to step off his adamant ‘sale only’ policy at the iTunes store. The truth is that corporations are going to want to force you to pay to watch their content every single time. Ubiquitous delivery will be only the beginning of all this. That’s going to get especially sticky in a world where portable players become more commonplace. I recently bought an Archos 605 Wifi, a wonderful personal video player with 80 gigs of memory and a beautiful 4.3 inch touchscreen, and the device has revolutionized the way I watch things – not least because I can put a dozen movies on this pocket sized device, bring it to a friend’s house and plug it into their TV. When digital download is king, the distributors are going to want me to pay to put movies on there, as well as on my TV or other display devices.
While I’m waiting for that final format war to heat up, I look at all the people caught up in this new one and shake my head. In ten years movie discs will be like vinyl – they may still make them, but they’ll be for a niche group of collectors. I’ll grab a Blu-Ray player when they’re dirt cheap, and I’ll pick up a new movie here and there, but who wants to invest in an already almost obsolete technology when the next big thing is just on the horizon? The only answer comes from how far off you think that horizon to be.