Tuesday, July 15, 2008

We Still Need Discs

At the 2008 E3 trade show, Microsoft made a lot of exciting announcements regarding the new directions it plans to go with the XBox 360.  One particular announcement stood out - that the XBox 360 will begin streaming Netflix Watch Instantly movies to your TV.  The talk of movies resurrected flagging rumors that XBox 360 would incorporate Blu Ray disc drives in future models.

Back when the current generation of video game consoles (Playstation 3, Wii, XBox 360) was being unveiled, Toshiba and Sony were unveiling the new generation of home video formats - HD-DVD and Blu Ray.  Playstation 3, being a Sony product, incorporated Blu Ray playability into its system.  XBox 360, being contrarian, sided with HD-DVD.  As history now records, HD-DVD died a painful death in the marketplace.

The moment Toshiba announced that it would discontinue the HD-DVD format, rumors began to fly that the XBox 360 would be modified to support Blu Ray.  On at least two occasions, Microsoft made loud public statements that these rumors were false.  Now they've made their third.

In an article on Forbes.com, Microsoft Interactive vice president Shane Kim claimed the company had no interest in adding Blu Ray functionality to its console.  According to Kim, the company is focused on digital distribution.  No more hard discs; just the electronic zapping of games and videos to your 360's hard drive.  Disappointing news, if you ask me.

Folks, I love the internet.  I love everything it's done for me.  It's the ultimate alternative.  I read more articles online than I do in magazines.  I send more e-mail than I ever did postal mail.  I don't need to go to the bank to handle my finances.  It even allowed me to cut my phone bill in half and get free long distance.  In short, I'm one of the people who's most looking forward to the day when I can ditch my satellite company in favor of getting all my TV and movies online.  But, I'm sorry, we're just not there yet.

The two big issues delaying the all-internet-all-the-time future are quality and cost.  Let me get quality out of the way first, since most people care less about that than they do about their bank accounts, which is where I'm going to hit you next.

QUALITY.

Online video looks like crap.  Simple enough?  In order to download or stream video files quickly, sacrifices have to be made in quality.  In an age when we're all preoccupied with pimping out our living rooms with 60" HDTVs and demanding higher quality video resolution to fill out the screen, online distributors are asking us to take a step backwards in quality.  Netflix tries to underplay the fact that their streaming Watch Instantly movies are lower in quality than DVDs.

When all is said and done, most people (myself included) are probably willing to sacrifice a little bit of quality to get movies for free.  That's certainly the case when you're browsing YouTube.  And if you already subscribe to Netflix, you have access to all their streaming movies at no additional cost.  But what happens when you have to pay for lower quality?  Now we find ourselves in the lower pits of hell known as the iTunes Store and XBox Live.

COST.

The iTunes Store and XBox Live both sell TV shows for $2 apiece.  (XBox Live has this childish points system.  But if you do the math, it's $2 per episode.)  At a glance, $2 may not seem like much money for a TV show.  But let's do the math.

After a bit of web browsing to remind myself what I was watching in the Fall 2007 TV season, here's what I tuned into on a weekly basis (to the best of my memory):

Chuck
Heroes
Reaper
Pushing Daisies
Kid Nation (yeah, I watched that crap)
Ugly Betty
My Name is Earl
30 Rock
Scrubs
The Office
The Simpsons
Family Guy
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Dexter
Weeds
Californication
The Amazing Race
South Park
The Sarah Silverman Program
Mad Men
Best Week Ever
The Soup
Real Time with Bill Maher
Code Monkeys

That may look like a lot, but I actually remember it as being a light schedule.  In my younger years, I was watching twice that (thank you, Fox Kids Afternoon).  Moving on.

That's 24 shows I was watching on a weekly basis.  That does not include specials and annuals, like the Emmys, The World Series of Pop Culture, G4's coverage of ComiCon, etc.  It also doesn't include the many movies I'd watch on HBO, Showtime, and other off-brand movie channels in the 9000s on Dish Network.

Now, let's say I pay about $100 per month for my satellite TV service.  (We'll say that because it's true.)  At two dollars a pop to download each of those shows from Apple or Microsoft, I would have a monthly allowance of 50 shows.  That means I could only watch two weeks worth of the shows listed above.  Half a month.  And again, that doesn't take into account any of the other random stuff I sometimes like to check in on, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, nor all the Animal Planet and Food Network shows my girlfriend likes to keep on in the background.

Two weeks worth of programming per month... and at much lower quality than all that high definition I get from my satellite company.

Now, let's say I fall behind on my TV watching because I recently moved and I'm having problems getting my dish installed in my new apartment after a recent move.  (We'll say that because it's true.)  All the shows I'm missing right now will be available on DVD in a few months.  I'll get caught up on everything I missed by renting them using Netflix, which costs a measly $15 a month for unlimited rentals.

And if XBox 360 came equipped with a Blu Ray player, I could rent those shows in high definition.  But since XBox is "focused on digital distribution," that won't be happening.  Since XBox is focused on digital distribution, they expect me to pay double the cost of my satellite bill to get a third of the video quality.

Making matters even worse is the burgeoning practice of metered internet.  As consumer demand for bandwidth grows due to, well, all this downloading I've been talking about, internet providers are finding it difficult to keep up.  If metered internet becomes the standard for internet providers, then quality video will remain an undesired goal for digital distribution.

So, despite the fact that companies like Apple and Microsoft think they can facilitate all our entertainment needs using the internet, those of us who know how to count money can see that Blu Ray drives have their place as a more economical way to get the highest possible video quality into our homes.  I hope these companies wise up and start making their equipment Blu Ray capable.