Blu-ray of death

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According to this article in the Times, the Blu-ray disc format has seen an increase in sales, but not a sufficient increase to ensure its long-term survival.

Technological development tends to accelerate. VHS video held sway from the late 70s to the end of the 90s. It had a good 25 years as the dominant home cinema format. DVD was such a huge leap in quality over VHS* that most people remain satisfied with it, ten years on, even though the electronics and entertainment industry is trying to convince us to upgrade to Blu-ray.

What, already? After just 10 years, they’re trying to tell us, it’s time to buy new hardware and replace your extensive DVD collection with HD Blu-ray discs.

I don’t think the hardware is the issue. Prices look reasonable, and if I was to buy a new disk player tomorrow, I’d probably get a Blu-ray player with backwards compatibility (and upscaling) for DVDs.

The problem is the content. Are people keen to buy more expensive Blu-ray discs? According to the Times article, they’re not, and you can’t blame them.

When CD audio was introduced in 1983, the key to its success lay in the co-operative relationships between electronics giants Sony and Philips. The problem with every single new format introduced since CD is that the major electronics and entertainment companies will not agree to agree and instead fight each other with wasteful format wars.

They should have worked out by now that consumers hate format wars, and just won’t play, which is one reason why you never saw DVD Audio discs or Super Audio CDs take off. The other reason high-resolution audio didn’t take off was because consumers did an about face and stopped looking for “hi fi” quality sound, deciding instead that compressed music formats were good enough quality and convenient/cheap to obtain.

People will accept “good enough” if the price is right – or free. This is the first rule of the format wars. The second rule is that content is king. If you can’t get what you want on the new format, you won’t buy it. It’s no use having just one or two major movie studios supporting a video format, and entertainment companies have been so stupid and paranoid about new technology that they just haven’t tried to engage with consumers, who have turned their backs on official outlets and turned to downloads: where the quality is “good enough” and the content they want is generally available.

The problem for Blu-ray is that the discs are expensive. DVD is both cheaper and “good enough” quality. Illegal downloads are also “good enough” and a lot cheaper! What people probably want is a reasonably priced high definition download. Without paying for packaging, physical distribution, retail overheads and DVD extras, it’s reasonable to expect to pay a fraction of the cost of a disk in a shop. This is what the entertainment industry needs to be supplying: that, and an easy, hassle-free way to play what you’ve paid for on anything you want to play it on.

*Personally, I love the improved sound on DVDs (though I have to turn the volume on my Seinfeld boxed sets up about 20 percent), but I’ve never warmed to the compression artefacts you get on the picture – especially on big blocks of one colour. I’m actually someone who would prefer fewer TV channels and less compression in the picture. The disappointing thing about everything becoming downloadable is that everything will end up being compressed to death.

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