ReadWriteWeb DeathWatch: Blu-ray

Everyone knows optical storage discs are on their way out in the long run, but ironically, the the biggest, newest format of them all could become extinct before the rest. Here’s why Blu-ray might join VHS in the dustbin long before DVDs or CDs give up the ghost.

The Basics

In 2006, a consortium of media companies spearheaded by Sony launched Blu-ray Disc, a high-capacity (25GB) optical disc with the same dimensions as DVDs and CDs. Blu-ray’s storage capacity and entertainment ties made it the leading contender to replace the aging DVD video format, and the results were impressive. Early Blu-Rays players delivered HD video and crystal-clear sound, and successive versions added extras like downloadable content.

Later that year, Sony made a major push, shipping Blu-ray drives in its Playstation 3 consoles and a number of high-end PCs. After a two-year standards war with Toshiba’s HD-DVD format, Blu-ray won the day in early 2008. Warner Brothers, Netflix, Wal-Mart and Best Buy dropped HD-DVD, so Toshiba abandoned the format, creating its own Blu-ray player. Since then, Blu-ray capacity has increased (to 128 GB for the newest quad-layer discs for BDXL drives), and it looks like even the Xbox 720 will support the format.

The Problem

Two of three console vendors will ship Blu-ray players into millions of homes, and Blu-ray disc sales as a percentage of total physical entertainment media are still climbing. So what’s the problem? There are actually three:

1. Timing. 2008 was a bad year to end a format war. With the Great Recession in full swing, many families were unwilling to spend to upgrade to Blu-ray, especially if doing it right required a new television and new content. A 2011 NPD study showed that 5 years after Blu-ray’s introduction, a full 57% of households were still using standard DVD players. According to recent Nielsen research published by Home Media Magazine, Blu-ray sales for popular films can account for as much as 75% of a title’s sales - or as little as 11%. As DVD players wear out and studios release more “must-have” HD titles like Avatar, Blu-ray’s share will likely increase. But that may be too little too late.

2. Netflix. Led by Netflix, Hulu and iTunes – with Amazon and a swarm of others in the wings – digital video is real, and it’s become a contender far faster than most people anticipated. As early as 2010, streaming surpassed optical disc rentals on Netflix. These days, every game console and most televisions bundle multiple streaming video services, every cable provider offers its own suite of pay-per-view titles, and iTunes offers thousands of films and TV episodes for purchase or rental. And those are just the legal sources. Service-based streaming models (ideally with some form of local caching for viewing off-network) are definitely where we’re headed.

3. Apple. Blu-ray is not just an entertainment delivery system. It’s also an efficient data distribution format, or it would be, if anyone but Sony adopted it. Unfortunately, Apple and most PC makers have opted to pass on Blu-ray drives, so software publishers have followed suit. If it doesn’t fit on a couple of DVDs, you’re getting it online. Apple actually shipped an entire operating system online, and no one seemed to mind. As a consumer alternative, USB flash drives are portable, reusable, and cheap ($40 gets you 64 GB), and they work with a much wider range of devices. Blu-ray may be still the most powerful player in the optical disc storage class, but that class has graduated.

The Prognosis

As video consumption moves toward alternative devices, Blu-ray’s significance will wane. DVD/Blu-ray/digital download packs (which are pretty cheap) will help bridge the gap for a while, but with dependable HD downloads and streaming, why would anyone bother with a physical disc? Eventually, Blu-rays will go the way of audio CDs, selling for a buck a piece at yard sales after their original owners have safely ripped them (possibly after using a VUDU-like conversion service).

Can This Technology Be Saved?

Americans still like to own things, and right now, Blu-ray is the most archivable, durable format for HD video storage. So until a cloud-based service emerges as a clear winner, there will be a case to keep that stack of discs by the TV. But all data storage formats run their course, and no amount of data-density improvements can stop the natural progression to streaming media.

As streaming and download services learn to take advantage of ubiquitous broadband Net access, Blu-Ray will be dead. It will happen faster than you think - and few folks will mourn its passing.

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