Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

DVD’s Assassination is BluRay’s Only Hope

Two weeks ago, I wrote that BluRay was doomed to take LaserDisc’s place as a movie-and-gadget-geek-only format.

The article was based on the assumption that the studios would cling to DVD sales as hard as they clung to VHS (which they are finally letting die – a decade after DVD’s launch).

However… what if they decided to knife DVD, leaving BluRay as your only choice? Would they do it?

It’s possible. The home video market is very different than it was in the mid-1990s.

Before DVD
DVD was the result of a compromise between a group of consumer electronics makers with a collection of 5″ laser disc technology patents collectively called the “Digital Video Disc” format and a competing group of consumer electronics makers with a collection of 5″ laser disc technology patents collectively called the “Multi-Media Compact Disc” format.

In an effort to avoid battling a format war in the market, they all agreed to use roughly half of each group’s patents and bury the other half. After months of negotiations both sides won some battles, lost some battles, and together they finalized the unified format. They named it “Digital Versatile Disc”.

Like MMCD, and unlike Digital Video Disc, it could be used both in a stand-alone player as a movie-only disc and in a computer as a data disc. Unfortunately, because the initials were the same as one of the old formats, the name confused everyone and flamewars erupted on usenet forums and in Compuserve chat rooms.

To end the bickering the name was changed again; this time to “DVD” (pronounced “DeeVeeDee”), which officially stands for nothing.

DVD Launches
The consumer electronics makers (united under a single format) were behind DVD, but the content providers weren’t so assured.

There was no way to know if customers were going to buy players, or this format was going to be another VCD or CD-i. The DVD disc pressing plants were just built/retooled (at a great cost) and no disc had broken the half-million mark, yet. Investment was a great risk, and only two studios had titles available at launch.

DiVX
Circuit City tried to splinter the format with it’s DiVX pay-per-view discs. Launching it’s scheme at the same time as DVD’s national rollout, they marketed it as a “feature of DVD” and told customers that “all the new models will have it”. Although CC tried their hardest, the format got the fate it deserved (It died and had a codec named after it.*) but not before creating customer confusion and stirring up technophobia.

The VHS Cash Cow vs LaserDisc II
While DVD was fighting the format war it hoped to avoid, cheap VHS tapes sold everywhere from gas stations to Wal-Mart and $100 priced-to-rent tapes sold like hotcakes to Blockbuster Video stores across the country.

The fact that a VHS tape cost more to produce and cost more to ship than a DVD was negated by the huge difference in the volume of sales.

Switching to DVD from VHS had other costs, too. Everything has to be re-mastered. Everybody expects extras. DVD Menu designers aren’t free. Music rights must be re-negotiated. SAG and the DGA expect to be paid, but the format isn’t mentioned in anybody’s contracts – so we need everyone to sign off, etc. etc.

…just more and more reasons to keep milking VHS.

New Format on the Block: Then vs Now
In 1998, the only way to get a movie on your TV at 480i with multi-channel sound was to have it encoded onto a plastic disc.

DVD, at 5″, was easer to handle than the 12″ Laserdiscs and on most movies you didn’t have to flip the disc.

Both plastic discs required mail-order or a trip to the store before you could start watching a movie. You gave the same effort for each and every movie, whether it was an old favorite or a just-watch-once guilty pleasure.

In 2008, to get a get a movie on your TV at 720p or 1080i/p with multi-channel sound, you can have it on a plastic disc or on your hard drive.
You can download it, stream it, mail-order it, or buy/rent it at the store.

Your opinion of each particular movie will greatly effect:
a) how much effort you’re willing to put into getting it
b) how long you’re willing to wait to begin watching
b) how much you care about technical specs
c) how many dollars you’re willing to spend on buying or renting it.
d) whether its a purchase or a rental.

Which format you watch your movie on will be decided be on a case-by-case basis.

It’s no longer one physical format vs another physical format in a winner-take-all battle. It’s a physical format and two internet-based delivery methods splitting the market into three pieces.

While internet-based delivery will be divided between downloads and streaming, there isn’t enough room in the market for two mainstream physical formats. Unless the industry collectively gets together and kills DVD, familiarity, ubiquity, and the “good enough” resolution from upscaling DVD Players will keep DVD the last word in Physical Formats for Movies just like familiarity, ubiquity, and the “good enough” sound resolution from oversampling CD Players kept DVD-Audio and SACD from unseating the Compact Disc as the mainstream’s choice in Physical Formats for Music.

Physical formats will never go away, but I don’t think BluRay has enough momentum to be The Big Kahuna.

2009: Paranoid Studios, DRM, and a Tanked Economy
So, the reasons to keep a legacy format around are obvious, but are there reasons to kill one? Yes, but they aren’t very obvious to the casual observer.

1. BluRay, as a collection of 5″ laser disc technology patents, is owned by fewer companies than DVD. Yes all the major studios have titles in both formats, but fewer consumer electronics makers hold patents in the collection of 5″ laser disc technology patents that make up the format, so each maker gets a bigger piece of the pie.

2. BluRay discs have a higher profit margin, so it’s a bigger pie.

3. DVD disc sales cannibalize BluRay disc sales.

4. DRM, which is fancy corporate-speak for Copy Protection. BluRay has more of it than DVD, and BluRay players get updates… allowing for additional control. Studios like control.

5. Studios can negotiate different terms for “HD” distribution as they have with “SD”, therefore have an opprotunity to squeeze a lot of smaller filmmakers for their pennies.

6. The economy is in the toilet. It is more cost effective to have a streamlined catalog.

7. Uh… Blue is pretty (and other “because we feel like it” reasons).

That’s all I can think of. I’m out.

Will they do it?
There are reasons to keep DVD around until it dies of natural causes (like VHS) and there are reasons to knife it early (like propping up BluRay). Which will they do?

Only time will tell.

*The fact that the codec was originally made out of a hacked version of VC-1 in an abandon-ware a/v container and used mainly to steal DVD content is mildly amusing.

MacWorld 2009: Free AppleTV 3.0 Update?

AppleTV could stand some improvement.
The AppleTV is deceptively powerful, and Apple could make it much more useful without having to resort to adding a TV Tuner, DVR Features. or a BluRay drive. In fact, they can do it with a Take 3 Software Update.

Free? How Can It Be Free?
Apple accounts for the AppleTV using the same subscription accounting method that they use for the iPhone.

This allows Apple to roll out major revisions free of charge without going afoul of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for two whole years after purchase*.

The first AppleTVs rolled out at the end of the first week of March 2007, putting MacWorld 2009 well within the 2-year window.

One More Thing
An update to this little hobby of Steve’s isn’t big enough news to get stage time. I’m sure it will be reported on the rumor sites along with bumps to the Mac Pro and the XServe, while the keynote will be spent talking about iPhone and App Store sales, iLife/iWork ’09, or a new Mac mini with a mini-DisplayPort and an extra USB 2.0 in place of DVI and firewire.

We’re due for another bi-annual jaw-dropper “one more thing”, but unless it’s a teleporter or a time machine, it’s hard to imagine that the rumor mill doesn’t know already.

How many rabbits can one man pull out of a hat in one career, anyway? If it’s a tablet, a cube, a game console, a VR helmet, a video phone, a WiMAX/whitespace VoIP phone, a car, or an airplane the rumor mill already has processed the patents and mocked up advertisements.

I’m keeping my expectations low: AppleTV 3.0 (with one of these two features) and a new Mac mini.

* The Sarbanes-Oxley Act does not say “two-years” specifically, it just works out to two years in Apple’s case because of the accounting method. SBA does not apply to minor revisions and/or bug-fixes nor to companies based outside of the USA (although some countries do have equivalent laws in place).

How To Fix The AppleTV (Hint: It’s not DVR functionality)

During the long stretch between Last Hardware Updates Of The Year and MacWorld there is little news coming out of Apple, Inc.. This is the time of year when Apple Talk turns from news and rumors to OpEd pieces.

In the last month, I’ve read more than a few articles telling the world what Apple needs to do to “fix” the AppleTV and send sales through the roof. Most of these articles recommend adding a DVR or an optical drive or both.

I hope not. AppleTV is a box for internet-delivered content.

Americans need to re-think Video Delivery
Americans think that you “get TV” from broadcast/cable/satellite and “get movies” come from shiny discs and Premium Channels. Therefore, anything that wants to rule the big screen will have to handle the content coming to it via these means.

…but what if TV and Movies came via internet? What if every single piece of programming that the cable company wants you to pay them to send to you could be sent via the internet connection you already have?

What if you could pull up a TV show as easily as a web page? What if you could subscribe to a TV show as easily as subscribing to a mailing list or an RSS feed?

Stop wondering “what if?”, because it’s all possible today.

(Now that you know this, how long before YOU cut the cable?)

AppleTV isn’t perfect
AppleTV needs to do better, not do more. The machine needs to be a better internet-delivered entertainment device. With this in mind, it’s easy to see where Apple TV could improve.

In addition to a processor/memory/storage bump, the AppleTV Take 3 should boast one of the two following features:

App Store / Plug-Ins
Yes, I know you can use plug-ins now. I also know they’ve gone from hacking and jailbraking-level mods to plug-and-play simplicity, but in the end… they’re still hacks.

We need an Apple-sanctioned solution to adding Boxee, Plex, Joost, or even games to the AppleTV. An App-store like package manager can easily do the trick.

Also, an App store would allow Netflix and Apple to combine forces without an official partnership.

It is widely known that Apple makes the bulk of it’s money on hardware sales and all other endeavors (including the iTunes store) work with the slimmest of profit margins. Apple is in the hardware business, first and foremost. Netflix is not.

Netflix doesn’t make ANY hardware, instead they are doing their damnedest to get their SaaS on everything from TiVo to XBox360 to Macs and PCs to your cable box. It is certain that they would make an App Store app.

Plug-ins boost the value of Apple’s hardware offering with minimal effort and minimal OS bloat.

– or –

Hulu
Apple needs to show the world that there is more free content than just Podcasts and YouTube Rants available online.

Streaming new/current TV Shows from Hulu beats Netflix’s tiny and ancient TV offering, plus Hulu is as free as broadcast, but with fewer commercials.

With MGM adding full-length movies to AppleTV via YouTube, adding Hulu to AppleTV at the factory will make it a REAL linear-delivery killer.

Having Hulu on the main menu next to YouTube would boost the value of Apple’s hardware offering with minimal effort and minimal OS bloat.

[Update: As someone pointed out to me, The Take 3 Software (if released before February) would be free to all AppleTV owners, thanks to the iPhone-like accounting method Apple uses.]

What AppleTV DOESN’T need is DVR features.
DVRs are for wrangling [linear-delivered video] sent on [a proprietary network].
AppleTV is for sorting [non-linear delivered video] sent on [the open internet].

Like a Gas Dryer vs an Electric Dryer, they’re incompatible with (and redundant to) each other. They do the “same” thing, but in two different ways; and no one needs both.

Yet, some people still don’t get it.

Thanks to non-linear deliverable video available on the open internet, I no longer pay a cable or satellite bill and I’m not missing any of my favorite shows.

In it’s current state, AppleTV can help wean you off of cable and satellite… but only if you combine it with Bittorrent, TVrss.net, and VisualHub. Hulu-on-AppleTV makes those other tools unnecessary, makes television-over-internet as simple as a DVR, and makes it that much easier to “cut the cable”.

Without cable, you don’t NEED a machine to wrangle it.

AppleTV DOESN’T NEED a DVD or BluRay Drive
Optical discs can compliment internet delivery, but I feel a dedicated box (like a DVD or BluRay Player) is a better solution for anything with moving parts.

I bought my first two DVD Players in 1998. A Creative Labs DxR2 for the computer and a Panasonic A110u for the television. Since then, I’ve gone through 5 DVD drives and 4 stand-alone players.

Luckily, each replacement was cheaper, faster, and had more features that the one it was replacing; although each one also got lighter and more fragile feeling, too.

Like component AV equipment, the optical disc player and the internet-delivered content player should remain as separate as the cassette player and the CD Player.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

DVD is the Last Mainstream Optical Disc. Sorry BluRay.

BluRay is not going to fail, it just isn’t going to go mainstream. It will be the LaserDisc to DVD’s VHS. Better sound, better picture, more options… and only used by gadget geeks and home theatre nerds.

BluRay movie sales will remain flat and DVD sales will continue to dwindle as people only buy Collector’s Editions of their favorites and go to downloads for everything else. BluRay discs will compete by adding more and more movie-geek and gadget-geek features that the average movie watcher couldn’t care less about.

Optical Discs aren’t going to go away, they’re just going to return to their 1997 status of Serious Movie Fans Only.

Netflix already realizes this. They are preparing for a post physical-media world. They are getting their customers to think of their service not as “DVD Rental” but as “Movie Access”. For X dollars per month, you have access to our library of movies on DVD, BluRay, your computer, your TiVo, your Roku Player, your Samsung Player, etc. Movies and vintage TV, non-linear delivery, all you can eat for a flat monthly rate. It’s like a premium cable TV channel, but you choose what to watch and how you watch it.

Apple is hoping that it’s iTunes movies will replace running to Best Buy for those “quick nothing” movies that you buy because it’s cheaper than GOING to a movie. Those “impulse buy” DVDs that you watch once and forget you own. At $9.99 it’s cheaper than everything but the giant bins of movies near the Wal-Mart check out stand, and has a much better selection of titles, or you can rent it for half the price.

Sure, a lot of the DVDs I own are because it was only a few dollars more than renting, but do I really need Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home, Betsy’s Wedding, or Advice from a Caterpillar taking up shelf space? I’ve shipped them across the country three times, and paid to store them in two states. They have no resale value. I doubt I’ll ever watch them again, but I can’t just toss them in the garbage, so there they sit… with their 600 friends.

On the other hand, I have no problem deleting episodes of Veronica Mars, Back to You, or Supernatural (that I paid for) just to make room. I doubt I’ll feel the sting of a deleted rental.

I know I’m just one person, but I was ahead of the crowd on VCRs, the internet, DVD, 16:9 screens, 5.1 sound, TiVo, MP3 Players, iPods, and switching to Macs. I just don’t hear the siren song of BluRay like I did everything else.

Election Night with No TV Set, Part II

My first real test of the NO TV For A Year pledge came this November 4.

After casting my vote, I returned home and pulled up Google News. The headlines were already coming fast and furious. Long lines, hate crimes, gun sales, and I-thought-I’d-never-see-the-day stories were sprinkled with poll closing times, battle state reminders, and the latest smears.

Then I found a live stream of CNN. Well… CNN International, but they were just simulcasting the US CNN feed so it was all the same. Well… all the same when it worked. It went down twice between noon and 2pm, each time going away for fifteen minutes, but it was much worse when I accidently closed the tab.

For over half an hour I kept refreshing the page, trying to connect. All it would give me was a still frame, until finally the video returned.

With the election such a nail-biter, I didn’t trust it to get me through the day on it’s own. I had two web browsers open, each with several tabs. Google, NPR, The New York Times, CBS, CNN, and gave “live” polling results in one browser, and Google News helped me spawn dozens of tabs in the other.

2:40pm PDT
I start taking snapshots. The first polls close in 20 minutes. These are to show how it began.

From Polls
From Polls
From Polls
From Polls
From Polls

3:58pm
NPR reports that Illinois and Kentucky have reported some results, but give no clue what they might be. The New York Times paints Illinois and Vermont blue and Kentucky red, but it’s for the senate races.

4:09pm
CBS calls Kentucky for McCain and Vermont for Obama

From Polls

at 4:10pm NPR follows suit, with Illinois still counting. At 4:17 NPR says Virginia is counting.

I step away from the computer. It doesn’t last.

4:45pm
Google: McCain Leads 8 to 3
NPR: McCain Leads 8 to 3
New York Times: Tie @ 0 to 0
CBS: McCain Leads 13 to 3
CNN: McCain Leads 8 to 3

Whoa. Is CBS padding McCain’s numbers or jumping the gun? Thirteen!? Everyone else is saying three!

4:58pm
Google: McCain Leads 8 to 3
NPR: McCain Leads 8 to 3
New York Times: McCain Leads 8 to 3
CBS: McCain Leads 21 to 3
CNN: McCain Leads 16 to 3

CBS still giving McCain the biggest number.

5:03pm
Google: McCain Leads 8 to 3
NPR: Map won’t load. Try again and again and again.
New York Times: McCain Leads 8 to 3
CBS: Obama Leads 81 to 39
CNN: Obama Leads 77 to 34

5:37pm
Google: Obama Leads 82 to 34
NPR: Obama Leads 103 to 34
New York Times: Obama Leads 10 to 8
CBS: Obama Leads 102 to 54
CNN: Obama Leads 81 to 34

5:49pm
Google: Obama Leads 82 to 34
NPR: Obama Leads 103 to 34
New York Times: Obama Leads 22 to 8
CBS: Obama Leads 102 to 54
CNN: Obama Leads 81 to 34

6:00pm
Google: Map won’t load. Try again and again and again.
NPR: Obama Leads 120 to 34
New York Times: Obama Leads 26 to 8
CBS: Obama Leads 102 to 54
CNN: Obama Leads 102 to 43

From Polls

6:10pm
Google: Map still won’t load. Try again and again and again.
NPR: Obama Leads 175 to 64
New York Times: Obama Leads 62 to 8
CBS: Obama Leads 174 to 100
CNN: Obama Leads 174 to 49

7:16pm
Google: Obama Leads 202 to 80
NPR: Obama Leads 207 to 129
New York Times: Obama Leads 155 to 17
CBS: Obama Leads 206 to 135
CNN: Obama Leads 207 to 95

7:44pm
Google: Obama Leads 207 to 114
NPR: Obama Leads 207 to 135
New York Times: Obama Leads 192 to 87
CBS: Obama Leads 206 to 141
CNN: Obama Leads 207 to 135

8:00pm
Google: Obama Leads 220 to 120
NPR: Obama Leads 220 to 135
New York Times: Obama Leads 207 to 127
CBS: Obama Leads 206 to 141
CNN: Obama Leads 207 to 135

At 8:00 CNN Projected Sen. Obama the winner.

From Polls

8:04pm
Google: Obama Leads 324 to 124
NPR: Obama Leads 220 to 135
New York Times: Obama Leads 218 to 127
CBS: Obama Leads 283 to 145
CNN: Obama Leads 297 to 139

I watch McCain’s speech, and it is the most beautiful concession speech I’ve ever heard. I watch Obama’s and can’t help but become overwhelmed with emotion. Then I lose the CNN feed for good.

From Polls

All-in-all, the internet-delivered news didn’t do too bad. If CNN had it’s own feed, they would have made a ton of money on advertising but alas they still think cable is their bread-and-butter.

Let’s hope the new MGM/YouTube deal will kick-start some thinking.

Election Night with No TV Set

When I gave up TV in July, it was pretty easy. The weather was nice and re-runs were the only thing on. Now, on Election Day, I finally feel the loss. I no longer have endless channels of mindless blabbering giving me up-to-the-millisecond election coverage. If I want to get information, I have to look for it.

There are a number of places to get “live” polling results, including NPR, The New York Times, CBS, CNN, and (my favorite) Google. I’m sure I’ll be checking all of them over and over again, weighing them against one another.

But, if you’re like me, you feel the need to stare at a talking head, so I found a live stream of CNN over @ uStream.TV (alternate stream) and all-day coverage @ GRITtv.