Future format viability and Circuit City’s DIVX bomb

Week or January 22, 2006

Q:   Bill Gates, (and others) have proclaimed that DVDs and CDs are obsolete and will be replaced by hard drive storage and Internet distribution as soon as 2014. Many in the movie, music and computer industries seem to favor a pay-per-use entertainment model in which consumer ownership is replaced by licensing. As a movie/music collector, that is frightening enough to me but my concern today is more immediate:

How do I transfer my 500 movies and 500 albums to a medium that will be viable 30 years from now when I’m retired and wanting to enjoy them?

Please note that I have already bought my collection twice. I started with LPs and VHS tapes in the ’70s and 80s and then bought almost everything again in the ’90s when I switched to digital. Fine to do once. I will not do it again.

A tech friend suggested that I buy a comparatively inexpensive external hard drive and rip my entire movie/music collection onto it. But I wonder about a possible snag: copy protection.

It would seem that the movie and music industries assume we’re all criminals these days and so they slap copy protection on everything, making simple back-up copies impossible. This concerns and sort of angers me. I am not a file sharer. I don’t download. I have legally purchased these movies and albums, (often twice!) I worry that middle-aged people like me—who have already supported the industry to the tune of thousands of dollars—may wind up with hundreds of workable discs thirty years from now and no players to play them on.

Is there a way around this or should I stock up on DVD/CD players now in anticipation for the lean decades to come?

Robin Johnson
Minneapolis, MN

A:   Regarding the licensing/internet distribution model:   far be it from me to doubt the word of Bill Gates and the wishes of the movie and music industries, but they don’t always get what they want!   They answer to the marketplace and consumers vote with their dollars, and people are used to owning their music and movies on something like a DVD or a CD and using it whenever they want.   It may encourage you that a relatively recent attempt to implement such a model failed miserably.

It was called DIVX, standing for Digital Video Express.   It   was introduced by Circuit City in 1997, shortly after the DVD format was introduced.   (This is different than the DivX movie compression format.)   DIVX, was, in short, pay-per-view DVD.   The initial purchase price of a DIVX DVD was under $5.00, much less than a regular DVD.   Once it was placed in your player, you could watch it as much as you wanted for 48 hours.   After that, the DIVX DVD player would dial up a home office and charge your credit card every time you tried to watch the movie.   What could be better for the entertainment industry?

Sound stupid?   It was!   Circuit City lost millions as the marketplace, led by enthusiasts and the media, revolted.   You can read the story at http://hometheater.about.com/library/weekly/aa062199.htm.

I wouldn’t make any moves just yet in terms of stocking up on DVD and CD players.   Phonograph records are considered obsolete, but if you want a turntable and cartridge, quality choices abound at all price ranges and new turntables are introduced every year.   Even really out-of-date formats such as Beta and the RCA CED video disc (imagine a record player for your television!) are still enjoyed by more people than you might think.   With all the DVDs and CDs in the hands of consumers right now, I don’t see hardware manufacturers abandoning them anytime in the foreseeable future.   If such a time arises, you will see it coming and that is the time to stock up on players.   And because we do not know what the format of the future is, I don’t know how much it will help to back everything up at the present.

If you still want to back up your collection, backing up CDs is easy.   I recommend using Apple iTunes software (a free download) and using Apple Lossless Compression to download them to a hard drive.   You can then use iTunes to burn backup DVDs.   If you back them up on a hard drive, you may run into compatibility problems with future operating systems. DVDs are more difficult.   Check out the GoDVD at www.simaproducts.com as a possible solution.

All in all though, with proper care of your collection, I don’t think you will have any problem enjoying your DVDs and CDs in the future, even thirty years from now.

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