Blu-ray Wins The Format War

Relative disc capacities

There have been format wars since the beginning of civilization when ancient scribes debated pressing cuneiform characters into soft clay or chiseling them into stone. Then the question became whether to write on papyrus or vellum. Early Christians pioneered the codex, a forerunner of today’s books, but not without opposition from traditionalists who wanted to stick with scrolls.

When we advanced from recording the written word to recording the actual sounds of those words, we had to decide whether to use wax cylinders or wax disks. Sound recordings then moved on to reel-to-reel tape and vinyl disks, eight-track tape, cassette tape, CDs, and now MP3s.

Meanwhile, video recordings could be found on film, VHS tapes, 12-inch videodiscs, and then DVDs.

More Content Requires More Capacity

The picture changed again when home theater systems started supporting high-definition video. A standard-definition movie may take 2 to 3 gigabytes, easily accommodated on a 4.7 GB DVD. But a high-definition movie may be 3 to 5 times as large and wouldn’t fit on a standard DVD without compression, which would simply reduce the quality of the picture. Add to this special features like alternate angles, in-line deleted scenes, additional language tracks, and multiple commentaries.

Obviously we needed a medium capable of storing a lot more data. The solution came in two formats, similar but different enough to ignite a format war: HD DVD and Blu-ray.

Although Blu-ray had a slight technical advantage — larger capacity and higher bandwidth — it was not that advantage that finally trumped HD DVD. The more titles there are available and the more distribution channels there are to move those titles, the more widely used a format will be. Blu-ray had both.

Backed by Sony Corp., Blu-ray gathered the support of major Hollywood studios including Warner Bros., Walt Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and Lions Gate. Then retail giant Wal-Mart agreed to distribute movies on Blu-ray rather than HD DVD. While choices for HD DVD players were limited, consumers had a range of Blu-ray players to choose from including Sony’s own PlayStation 3.

Blu-ray Is Not The Ultimate Solution

Does Blu-ray’s victory mean the advancement of data and video storage technology has reached a plateau? Don’t count on it. Already a number of worthy contenders are appearing on the scene.

Apple TV

Holographic discs that could store as much as 300 GB — six times Blu-ray’s capacity — are already under development. While these options aren’t available for the mass market yet, it’s only a matter of time before we see them on store shelves.

Why would we need this capacity? Eventually high-definition movies will become passé. We’ll be watching higher-definition movies in 3D. And then fully immersive 3D movies. (Imagine Star Trek’s holodeck in your own living room.) That kind of content will again push the limits of recording technology, making even Blu-ray inadequate.

No Disc Is Better Than Blu-ray

What, though, if you didn’t need a Blu-ray disc — or any disc at all — to watch a movie? We’re already at that point. You can now download high-definition movies from Apple’s iTunes Store using a Mac, a PC, or Apple TV. Movies are available both for purchase and for rent. Either way, there’s no need to worry about disc formats.

iTunes already has competition from other movie download services like Netflix and Amazon’s Unbox. While neither yet provides high-definition movies with the same quality you’ll get on Blu-ray, it’s only a matter of time.

Of course, home connection speeds will have to increase before downloading movies offers any real challenge to Blu-ray’s newfound dominance. That’s because while downloading a movie over a high-speed DSL connection may only take a couple of hours, and, depending on the software you’re using, you may be able to start watching before you’ve captured the whole file, downloading the same movie over a 56 Kb dial-up connection would take days.

Some estimates put the percentage of US homes with high-speed internet access at only 22%. Other developed countries are higher, but none are yet at the point where downloading movies can fully replace a trip to the video store.

Still, eventually that will change. Eventually high-speed Internet access will become as ubiquitous as regular phone service. When it does, Blu-ray’s days may be over.