"Why, honey, of course there's gonna be a war."
Now that Sony has shipped their Playstation 3 (it came out in Japan earlier), the HD disc format war has really begun. Blu Ray didn't really have a strong product on the market until recently and by most accounts, the PS3 is going to be the standard bearer for the format for the mainstream (if you can call a $600 console "mainstream"...but then again, it's the cheapest player on the market as the others start at $1,000), going up against Microsoft's Xbox 360 which recently got an HD-DVD drive (as an optional add-on). The Nintendo Wii can only play standard definition DVD. For an overview of these three rivals, click here. The PS3 launch is truly a big deal for Sony who is betting the farm on the PS3 both as a console and as a jumpstart for the Blu Ray format. Along with all the reporting on the new systems comes the wave of speculative articles on the upcoming death of physical media. More specifically, the opinions that by the time either HD format wins, people will be abandoning discs as a method of getting music and movies. Slate has an article on this, which can be found here.
I'm not sure the author is wrong, necessarily but I'm also not sure downloads/video on-demand will take over as fast as he and some others predict. Some of this depends on the tech and content companies figuring out how to do this in a consumer-friendly fashion as well as broadband speeds that can deliver it quickly. I think if HD discs fail, it will be due to lack of interest by the general public. The bad part of this would be if lower resolution downloads take over and there is no option for really good HD. The new formats have their issues, but one thing they have going for them is very high picture and sound quality (the video data rate is higher than broadcast HD).
I also read an article declaring VHS dead, which can be found here. Generally, I am not really sorry to see video cassettes go by the wayside. The quality was never great and the mechanical complexity of the VHS (or Beta for that matter) transport was always a liability. I have generally had better luck with DVD, even though video cassettes are more sturdy than optical discs. I still remember having tapes stuck in a VCR, having to partially dismantle the deck, and if the tape was valuable, taking the cassette itself apart to splice the broken tape. God, how I do not miss that feeling: wondering whether the tape would come out of the VCR intact when I pressed the eject button. On the other hand, VHS was simple and usually worked (it's just that when it didn't, it was a real mess). Aside from the stereotype of folks not knowing how to set the clock, it was something that was easy to grasp, far easier than DVD recorders with their multiple disc formats and write once/write multiple times business.
The real issue for me, as far as VHS dying off goes, is that there is a large amount of material that was available for the format that has not been replicated on DVD. This issue is becoming less relevant with mainstream movies, but with more offbeat programs and educational videos, it's a real problem. Academic institutions have large collections of these videos and even if they could get everything on DVD, they don't have the funds to repurchase everything. The first solution would be to digitize the analog material and burn it to DVD or better yet, put it all on a server so students can access it remotely. But this is where things get sticky since copyright issues abound and we have our old friend the DMCA which rears its ugly head whenever we get into anything digital.
Another issue that nags at me is the fact that I don't trust the content companies. Sure, I would be OK with many forms of entertainment I enjoy being offered to me as some kind of download or on-demand, but for movies I really like, I want to be able to own a copy. The way that rights management technology works allows the content owners to cut me off if they, for whatever reason, don't want to make the content available anymore (like a legal dispute over music). If I only have access to Jackson's Lord of the Rings via on-demand or a DRM-controlled computer copy, I could lose it or be forced to pay whatever fee the studio wants. If I have the disc sitting in my home that doesn't require crummy activation schemes to play, such as the current DVD, I still get to enjoy the content that I purchased. If it goes out of print due to legal issues, I still get to watch it as long as I had the foresight to purchase it. So color me skeptical as far as physical media going away. The companies are going to try and sell non-disc media as more convenient (and it can be) and Internet-activated discs as offering more "interactive" content (am I just old and crusty or is a lot of this so-called interactive content a bunch of BS?) as the benefit of a requirement to "activate" my movies (just like software). So where does this all lead? Back to the days where movie studios charge you each time you see something and they control how it gets seen. Back to the pre-home video days. A lot of companies salivate at this prospect, but it ain't going to be that simple. How it plays out, no one really knows, but it's bound to be interesting.