Death of the disc

2010-01-27 00:00

GOOGLE entered the video rental business this week, offering five movies that can be rented for 48 hours from its Youtube service for a cost of $3,99 (R30,20) each. It’s been a long time since I rented a DVD, but I remember it costing about that much to get a new release from the shop on the corner.

This will pit Youtube against Netflix and other companies that offer online video rental in the United States, the only country that will have the service at launch.

With the rise of digital distribution and the advantages of delivering content via the Internet, it seems like the disc’s days are numbered. And with it will go tons of cardboard, plastic and paper used for packaging and providing additional information.

It is already easy to buy games online — a revolution that has enabled a rapidly growing indie market with titles like Machinarium and Torchlight making big money with tiny overheads. Buying music on physical media has become passé and movies are following suit.

Apple dragged online music retailing out of the dark when it launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003. It is now the number-one retailer of music worldwide, with iTunes accounting for more than 70% of worldwide online digital music sales.

Since then, the store has evolved to include television shows and movies for people lucky enough to live in a country where they are offered, or who lie about it, like I do.

Of course, in South Africa there is more to it than just having the service available — a high-definition movie is about six gigabytes, twice the average monthly bandwidth cap of a South African ADSL Internet connection.

Even with the cheapest ADSL bandwidth available in SA, you’d have to pay about R240 to download a file of that size, never mind the time required to download it. Paying R25 to rent and 10 times as much to download a movie isn’t a very appealing option.

But once broadband prices and performance improve in South Africa, we’re sure to join in on the action with localised services. In the U.S. you can rent movies using Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console and Xbox Live service, from iTunes, Netflix and soon on the Nintendo Wii and via Youtube. Online is quicker, easier and you don’t have to deal with scratched DVDs.

It seems likely that Blu-ray will be the last optical disc format in wide use. The actual discs themselves will be around for some time to come, but I doubt we’ll see much effort put into a new technology to replace them, just like the CD has never been widely replaced for music since being introduced commercially in 1982.

The move to digital distribution of music, and now games, has made it easier for garage producers and developers to get their content online and for sale. As movies make the digital transition, a whole new generation of independent film-makers will be able to sell their creations alongside Hollywood’s best.

The film equivalent of Arctic Monkeys, the band that made it big on the Internet without a major record label backing it, will become common place. And the guy selling fake DVDs at the traffic lights will have to find another occupation. —

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