Thursday, July 20, 2006

HD DVD vs. Blu-ray (Pt. VIII)

In previous posts in this series such as HD DVD vs. Blu-ray (Pt. VII), I stuck to facts in an attempt to psych out the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray format war as it gets under way. Now I'd like to indulge in a bit of rank speculation.

Will either or both of these new hi-def disc formats become hits? If so, what will put it or them over the top?

The answer just may be a whole new way to build a video collection. Imagine that you have an HD DVD or Blu-ray recorder, not just a player. Like the first HD DVD players and Blu-ray players soon to come, it has an Ethernet port and can directly access a broadband Internet connection, just like a computer. In fact, on the inside it is a computer.

Imagine also that there is an online store like iTunes, except it sells movies. High-definition 1080p video, multichannel-PCM audio movies — the same exact bitstreams as are sold on prerecorded HD DVD and Blu-ray discs, in fact. Call this store iFlicks.

You can log onto iFlicks and buy, say, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest for legal download to, say, a Blu-ray disc. You authorize the $10 charge to your credit card, and the download begins. Even with a broadband connection, it takes several hours, but you're setting this up to happen at night while you're asleep, so who cares? In the morning, you'll have your own BD of the hottest movie going.

There is nothing to say this scenario couldn't become a reality. All the technical hurdles have been overcome, or soon will be. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray promise recordable media akin to DVD-R and DVD-RW. These new recordable disks will hold a minimum of 15 gigabytes for a single-layer HD DVD, 20GB for BD. I imagine dual-layer recordable disks will double those figures.

Of course, it can't happen if copyright owners — studios — balk. They would need to feel secure that they weren't giving away the keys to their (magic) kingdom. These recordings would have to be copy-protected out the proverbial ying-yang. Probably they would be copyable to/playable on at most (say) three machines authorized by the purchaser, just as are iTunes downloads today. The three authorized machines would have to be connected to the Internet each time the movie is played, to confirm the authorization — or even to gain access to small-but-crucial pieces of the movies' bitstreams that are otherwise not part of the download. Use of the bitstreams beyond those three machines would be impossible.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that the studios would make sure iFlicks movies are compatible with HD DVD or Blu-ray, but not both — just as iTunes songs work only with iTunes software or on iPods. The format war could be won or lost based on which format iFlicks supports. Of course, there might be competition. A Blu-ray iFlicks store might have to contend with an HD DVD myFlicks store. But chances are that one or the other would dominate, just as the Apple iTunes Music Store leads all the rest.

The advantages to you and me would include lower prices for flicks which do not have to be distributed physically in bricks-and-mortar stores or shipped via UPS. We wouldn't have to pay for extras we don't want, like alternate-language soundtracks. We wouldn't have to pay for packaging. We could reuse the media at will, if rewritable. We could pair two movies on one dual-layer disc. Et cetera.

iFlicks or myFlicks could even offer us special bonus material not available on prerecorded discs: ways to turn action flicks into video games, user-selectable endings, alternate camera angles, and so forth.

There would be must-have stuff of this sort at iFlicks, but not at myFlicks — and, of course, vice versa — and whichever online store had the best exclusive stuff could well determine the winner of the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray format war.

That's my bit of rank speculation, anyway. Now I'll just sit back and see if anything like it actually comes true.

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