Digital Downloads of Movies "Years Away"

TV Predictions is reporting… a consensus amongst Hollywood studios that digital downloads of movies are not likely to replace Blu-rays and DVDs for some time. They cite the (un)usability of existing services as the main reason why. I whole-heartedly agree- the infrastructure is designed, almost intentionally to be as confusing as possible, and the problem of DRM… only exacerbates the point.

However, usability is something that can always be addressed. I was watching the movie The Boondock Saints recently, and though the movie is only 9 years old, I felt strangely amused to watch Willem Dafoe listening to a portable CD player. I was about to joke about the inferior technology of a bygone era, when I realised something: CDs are superior to MP3s in terms of the audio. Both are digital formats, but the technical quality of a CD is much higher than the typical MP3. In fact, you’d have to go with something like FLAC compression to get CD quality audio. MP3 just doesn’t cut it. When DVD-Audio was first proposed, lots of people thought it was going to revolutionise the music industry. It’s maybe ten years since then, and I’ve still never met someone who bought a DVD-Audio disc.

So what’s going on here? The average consumer just doesn’t care about quality… The audio quality of MP3s is good enough, and it’s the other advantages that win out. I switched to an all digital movie system at my home some time ago, and I’ve never looked back. I convert all my DVDs to MPEG-4 (around 1GB per file) and stick them on a server. There’s a loss in quality, to be sure, but that’s nothing compared to having them all at the push of a button, complete with metadata scraped from the movies IMDB entry. I can cross-reference the years, actors, directors and so on for each film, rate them (or go with the IMDB rating), in exactly the same way as I can with my digital music collection. And it’s great.

Granted, I know what I’m doing in terms of getting this working. It’s complicated to set up, maybe even impossible for the average person. But I’m certain that it won’t always be this way. It used to be that the disk space was the limiting factor, but you can get a 1TB disk drive for a couple of hundred dollars, and that’s enough to store around 200 DVDs without recompressing them. One of the complaints they Hollywood execs made was that the files took too long to download, which is true– you can’t stream a movie. However, that doesn’t stop people ordering or renting DVDs from Amazon, even though they are transmitted through the ultra-slow medium of the postal service.

I see Blu-ray as a stop-gap, nothing more. The studio execs need to step up and take the reins of digital downloads rather than cowering under their desks and hoping that it doesn’t happen until they can collect their pensions. Otherwise we’ll see another media industry get swallowed up by a computer company. How many music execs do you suppose are kicking themselves right now over iTunes?

Posted: March 15th, 2008
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