Blu-ray vs. the cloud

The necessity of physical media seems incongruous with the times we live in. After all, iTunes is now the largest seller of music in the US, and they don’t have a single CD or LP on offer. All of the music they sell is in bits. You download it directly to your PC, and if you have an iPod, you can carry it with you very conveniently. I’m a big proponent of digital distribution for music; for me, it’s something to listen to while doing other things (driving, cleaning the house, writing), so the trade-off for going digital (compressed, lossy music) doesn’t bother me.

I’m even looking forward to the day when any song you might desire just exists on the “cloud” we call the Internet. Much like Gmail has taken e-mail from the desktop to the cloud, it’s not hard to imagine needing only a PC or an Internet-connected portable device to gain access to the vast majority of the world’s music.

So why don’t I also want movies to follow this model? I’m not a particular fan of having physical media. I don’t need shelves of DVD and BD cases taking up room in my modest home. While grabbing movies from the cloud seems like it would be ideal, there are a number of reasons why I think losing physical media would be a tragedy for movie buffs.

The biggest reason is also the most obvious: while I don’t mind compression when it comes to music, I can’t stand it when it comes to video. Digitally-distributed movies can’t match the quality of Blu-ray, and visual artifacting is noisome and unwelcome. True high-definition content would result in extremely large file sizes, and our Internet capacity in the US can’t deliver that kind of content to everyone’s homes. As we move forward and more and more people start streaming standard-definition video from sources like Netflix and Hulu, bandwidth caps are going to become a larger and larger problem. It’s one thing that downloading a heavily-compressed, 720p movie file is an inferior experience to just renting a BD and sticking it in your player, but if even a fraction of the people with HD televisions start getting their media via the Internet, service providers would start cracking down on the amount of bandwidth those consumers could use. ISPs already don’t like the amount of bandwidth YouTube uses; a 50GB HD movie every weekend would get your Internet service taken away or throttled.

Another huge disadvantage is Digital Rights Management. Unlike the music industry, which has moved away from DRM, the movie industry is still committed to this outmoded idea that the best way to fight Internet piracy is to punish the legitimate customer. Any movie file you download now can only be used by certain devices, can’t be easily moved from device to device, and relies on the largess of the provider to continue working. When you buy a DVD or BD, you own that disc and can watch it in any player you please. As we’ve seen time and time again, DRM restricts your fair-use rights, and once a company decides keeping its authentication servers online is too expensive, you lose access to all the files it’s sold you. Customers who bought music from Wal-Mart and didn’t jump through hoops to strip the DRM will very soon lose that library of music.

Lastly, BD movies typically include a variety of extra features. As a hardcore movie buff, I’ve spent many hours watching documentaries and listening to directors’ commentaries. The digital downloads of today are not only inferior in picture and sound quality; they don’t give you a deeper look at the film. Listening to an auteur tell you the process behind the cinematography, color choices, casting, blocking, editing, and so on is a priceless treasure. Can you imagine if Capra or Hitchcock had had the opportunity to walk us through their great works? Beyond the special features, even seemingly simple things like closed captioning are being neglected by today’s download services. My hearing is pretty shabby, and when films have a muddy center channel, I frequently rely on CC in order to enjoy films.

So what do you guys think? Am I a luddite who refuses to yield to progress? I look at the future of streaming media, and I see my successors watching 2001 in a YouTube window, and I weep.

Next time, I’ll be taking a look at Blu-ray’s place in the marketplace. Can an HD format take hold when many consumers are watching standard-definition satellite programming stretched to fill their HD set’s wider aspect ratio without realizing that anything is even amiss? Studies have shown that these people think they are watching HD programming, when what they are watching looks significantly worse than if they were just using an old standard-definition tube television.

15 thoughts on “Blu-ray vs. the cloud

  1. I actually completely agree with you. I’m all about the coming age of digital distribution; Services like iTunes, Steam, and Virtual Console/WiiWare have seen to that, but for films, tv, and video… I’m just not sold, for pretty much all the reasons you listed.

    I’d like to move up to an hd format. I have a 20″ LG sitting in my room and I play my Wii on it and DVDs via my PS2. At this point, however, the barrier to entry is still too expensive. It might just be because my hd set is smaller, but plain old DVDs still look pretty decent when I pipe them through some component cables, and they’re a lot cheaper then blu-rays cost.

  2. I’m Josh_AnimeBum and I approve this message.

    Seriously I agree with most of your points here. While I admit I don’t watch every extra on my DVDs and BDs like I used to do in the early days of DVD, I still enjoy commentary tracks and some of the behind the scene extras. These become completely lost when you make the switch to the currently digitally distributed content.

    Some people then might hope that the lack of content will be made up by the pricing, but no this is not the case. Often times it is just as expensive to buy the disc instead of the download. In some cases a standardized pricing on these services leads to things being more expensive as a digital download (Take for example the PSN video service: 22 episodes of Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer costs $44, but the season 2 DVD set has an MSRP of only $40). Once you factor in the restrictive DRM, and the inability to just bring the disc (or even burn a disc and bring) to a friend’s house any benefits are primarily lost.

    The only time I would consider using one of these video services is to possibly rent a movie on some random weekend.

    And speaking of closed captions, you are not the only one with good hearing who uses them. When you live in an apartment you don’t want to have to blast the volume just to watch something late at night, and captions are great for that. In fact I’m mad that I can’t access any closed captions (on TV shows or discs) on my HDtv via my HDMI connection (unless of course there is an English subtitle track on the disc which unfortunately is not always the case).

    The comment about the authentification servers is also the primary reason that I would pretty much only tolerate the increased compression and loss of access if I was accessing the content solely on a subscription basis instead of having any delusions that my access to the content was permanent.

  3. You’re not a luddite — you appreciate having the best available digital video quality. However, once physical media storage becomes more expensive than network bandwidth, anyone still buying digital files on plastic will be a luddite. And it seems like that day is fast approaching.

    Fortunately, the secondhand market will remain a beautiful and inexpensive thing for those people who wish to appreciate art rather than hoard it.

  4. I’m looking forward to further entries in your series about BluRay Discs. My brother and I have an ongoing discussion/argument about the value of BDs at this point in time. While I can see the gain in quality, I’m still heavily opposed to shifting over to that format because I’m accepting of lower quality at a lower price point. His argument, on the other hand, is that I’m stupid for wanting to lag behind. I’ll be honest and admit that I haven’t a clue as to which BluRay players are the best at upscaling, and I refuse to sell and repurchase the DVDs in my collection. (My brother, however, did just that.) I don’t feel it should be a pressing change as of yet, and I don’t like the fact that it’s being thrust on us immediately after the removal of VHS forced everyone to buy DVD players. However, I know I’m going to have to make the move eventually, so I’m eagerly awaiting new installments to educate me on my future purchase.

  5. Actually, even DVD and Blu-Ray have DRM. You have to watch the discs with a player and cable authorized by the right people, and bought in the corresponding region. Sometimes you might have to watch stupid warnings, prohibitions or even logos and ads. But it still isn’t anywhere near the obnoxious DRM that causes most of the problems.

    But yeah, movies are huge. But I’d rather have a more lossy compression and lower resolution to save on filesizes. I don’t watch a picture, I watch a movie. The events, the words, the sounds, the movements, a broad image that doesn’t require pixel-perfect resolution. For the HD people, disc is a good option, but for the rest of the viewers… Youtube artefacts ain’t so bad, you know.

  6. DRM is one of those things people will accept up to a point. One of the arguments HD-DVD boosters made was that Blu-Ray had more DRM. I said it didn’t matter because almost everybody using the platform right now isn’t running into the walls of it. You put a disc in, the movie plays. That’s what people expect.

    The problem I see with the cloud is that the same people providing us with a majority of our internet access have a legacy business in selling television access. Since the BBC launched iPlayer, it has been sparring with ISPs in it’s home country over bandwidth costs and who should burden the cost of all these customers streaming fairly good quality video all at once (I’m sure that iPlayer has since added a “play in high quality” button hasn’t helped much.)

    North America’s internet is often brought through the same company that offers cable TV, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see services such as Hulu get throttled to hell and gone so as to make sure the legacy business isn’t cannibalized by the amazing do-it-all swiss army knife of TCP/IP.

  7. Disc based DRM, though is relatively stable. As long as the platform is really going to be around for a few years, “compromising” the security system is trivial.

    Flip that over to something like Apple where they just flip a switch to render any sort of DRM compromise useless and push down a firmware update for the iPods and requires you to update iTunes.

    Closed systems are not only anti-consumer, they’re anti-competitive, and you end up with three or four major players, and suddenly you’ve got the entire economy collapsing because the half dozen people running those companies got greedier than usual and start taking so much out of your pocket that the whole country grinds to a halt, and the federal government has to bail them out.

  8. I’ve been thinking about a somewhat radical short-to-medium term solution to the bandwidth problem: Movies should be sent over the internet as polygon data, created by video game companies. Think of the Xbox 360 version of GTA4. It has as much content as a season of The Sopranos, it’s HD, it all fits in 7 GB and its usually-gorgeous graphics are rendered in real time on cheap consumer hardware. Imagine how many hours of cutscenes GTA4 could’ve had if all of its development time went into cutscenes rather than split between cutscenes and gameplay.

    Now, who wants to sell polygon movies over the internet? I guess Rockstar is one, but I think Japan’s game companies would be the best bet. Nowadays most Japanese games have better cutscenes than gameplay. Those companies could simply make a few cutscene-only games, call them a TV series, and sell them as downloads onto game consoles. It would be less than 1/10 the file size of a TV series on Bluray, but look and sound almost as good. Who’s with me?

  9. Even when we move to internet 2 or whatever, I still think that digital distribution would be bad for movies. Losing liner notes on a CD isn’t a big deal. Losing a bunch of audio commentaries is.

  10. I agree that for now physical media is still the best. I just hope that someday we get to the point where it’s reasonable and realistic to have everything digitally distributed. That day is not today, however.

  11. I’m also looking forward to future installments. I won’t have the cash for the HD revolution (a TV, cables, movies) anytime soon, but since I own a PS3 I don’t mind learning more about it now.

    vsrobot: I value those liner notes. If it’s an album from an artist I really care about, my first listen is (pop in computer and hit play while ripping) and listen to the album, liner notes in hand. For me it’s part of the experience of the whole album “package.” Now on DVDs, I’ve only listened to five audio commentaries in my life, but I’m not ready to give them up. They’re a valuable window into the mind of the director/producer/actor/makeup guy/extra/whoever, and I love those little extra details and facts. I’ll keep my liner notes AND my audio commentaries. And my game manuals bursting with individual life and creativity (VC cookie-cutter manuals make me cry).

  12. Confession: I still buy CDs, at least of stuff I hold in high regard. I will continue to do so as long as the CD in question isn’t offered in a lossless file format. Sure when listening in the car lossy compression isn’t noticeable but with either decent headphones or a good home stereo its readily apparent.

    Also: especially with smaller bands if feasible I really prefer to buy the CD at a live show, so that the band gets the retail cut in addition to their royalties.

  13. Re: vsrobot — funny you mention commentary tracks. My coworker has been fighting to rip DTS audio from his discs, and iTunes will neither 1) rip DTS or 2) allow you to multiplex separate audio tracks over an existing video. I think mainstream software like iTunes will deal with these issues soon though.

  14. Digital distribution is running head-on into the twin devils of practicality and economy. As much as companies may want to cut out retail, the capacity for this type of thing simply isn’t going to be there in North America (let alone the rest of the world) for the forseeable future. And that’s before even considering if there’s something AFTER our current HD formats boasting an even higher resolution and requiring a matching order of magnitude increase in bandwidth.

    I can see games *kind of* sticking with the model, but even then it’s likely to be restrained by ISP’s. Movies are simply too large to feasibly work under anything approaching the current bandwidth format we have, and that’s before taking other services such as VoIP or anything similar into consideration.

  15. Two things. First, I think you can’t make a blanket statement for all video. Video compression works excellently for cartoons, due to the flat colors. Anime in particular could benefit from digital distribution due its being a niche interest. Short inde films and shows more or less requires digital distribution to succeed, and could benefit from being marketed alongside more well-known films, or even piggy-backed onto them (like in those days when you got a short before the feature film).

    Second, there’s often a rough patch when transitioning from one tech to another. In this case, the Internet infrastructure in the US is lagging behind the ability to distribute content digitally. However, all the money being poured into digital storefront tech, CODECs (video compression), digital marketing, and yes, even DRM, will benefit the consumer once large-scale digital distribution is possible.

    That being said, it’s lame to have your Internet throttled, especially if you’re not even interested in video streaming. Hopefully bandwidth technology will simply improve soon. As an aside, I’m suspicious that iPhone users are fu#$ing my regular AT&T cell use. Then again, I don’t exactly think cellular multimedia is a bad thing.

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