Has the future finally arrived? 

I’ve been saying for a while that physical media is on its way out and that digital download is the way of the future (way of the future), but there have been some serious stumbling blocks keeping that future from happening. One of the most pernicious was the lack of standards – you could buy a movie on your iPhone, which was cool, but you could only watch it on the phone. You could get the latest Hollywood hit movie or TV show on your Xbox, but it was stuck on that hard drive. Sure, Blu-Rays and DVDs come with digital copies now, but you have to rip them to your computer before loading them on some other device, a process that’s probably beyond most people (I’ve never even bothered attempting it). 

Disney is attempting to surmount this problem using their new KeyChest authentication system. The basic gist of KeyChest is this: you buy a movie and you can watch it on your Xbox, your TV, your phone, your computer, your device that has not yet been invented. And there are no digital copies or hard discs to worry about – the movie is stored on a central server and you access it anytime, anywhere that you like. It’s not just Disney movies, either – the goal of KeyChest is that every movie you buy, from every studio and every distribution channel, will be hooked up together using this authentication system.

There are many of you who are against this immediately just because you’re attached to physical media. There’s a good chance that if you’re on CHUD you’re a collector and you like having that shelf full of DVDs and Blus. The reality is that most people don’t feel the same way. As we learned with the digital distribution of music, it’s the product that matters, not that packaging (and we also learned that people would happily trade sound quality for convenience, by the way). But as we learned with digital distribution of music, this doesn’t mean  the end of physical media. The vinyl LP has made a surprising comeback in the last few years, to the point where I’ve seen them sold in Barnes & Noble. This is because there are still niche audiences that want to buy the format, and the corporations will continue to sell to those niche audiences. As long as enough of us want a physical box set of The Godfather Trilogy, Paramount will make a physical box set of The Godfather Trilogy

KeyChest still faces some stumbling blocks: bandwidth remains an issue. That said, I believe that once the American public sets their sites on video on demand the bandwidth will suddenly appear – we got a man on the moon, we can probably figure out how to get bigger pipes to the boonies so that giant media conglomerates can sell us stuff. There are over-the-air issues, but again, I think these will be solved in the near future. I suspect that by 2020 the ubiquity of the internet will be stunning – wifi will be everywhere, and cheap or free. And our phones will be on at least 4G networks, maybe even 5G. The access will increase as the demand does.

But beyond the stumbling blocks, there are basic questions about KeyChest and digital downloads in general that must be answered. What does ownership mean in the digital download era? Can George Lucas take away my digital copies of Star Wars when he wants to upgrade the FX again? Will I still be able to store these digital copies on fixed media, just in case I’m in a place without wifi, like a plane or on a camping trip? And will KeyChest itself include physical media – will the Blu of Wrath of Khan I buy at Best Buy have a KeyChest code in the booklet so that I can add it to my collection in the computing cloud, meaning I can have Khan while on the road but keep the disc at home?

These questions are small but niggling ones, and they have to be addressed at some point. Disney hopes to get KeyChest up and running by the end of the year; there will be additional partnerships announced in a few months. Some companies will bristle against this, as they want proprietary formats – I bet Apple doesn’t play ball – and some studios prefer to make you buy a copy of a movie for your living room and one for your phone. But this is the way home entertainment media ownership is going, and just like people who stood by pan and scan and people who stood by DIVX got steamrolled, so will anyone who gets in the way of a digital download model that allows consumers ultimate flexibility. I don’t know that KeyChest is the killer app that gets digital download off the ground in a major way, but it’s certainly a major step in the right direction.

via Reuters