September 13, 2009 - A Discless Future
by Doug Schneider

We featured Sony’s BDP-CX7000ES, a 400-disc Blu-ray megachanger, in our September 13 coverage. All in all, it appears to be a pretty cool product. But it, like every Blu-ray, DVD-V, and CD player introduced at this year’s CEDIA Expo, has a limited shelf life. In fact, when we covered it, I couldn’t help thinking that it will soon be obsolete. The future of movie and music playback will remain digital, but without the cumbersome discs.

Take the Compact Disc, for example. Sales of CDs have been declining for almost a decade, while downloading is up. Nothing can be done to bring the disc back -- nor should it be. There’s no need to buy a disc to get CD-quality music anymore because you can get the equivalent, if not better, by downloading: Over a broadband Internet connection, a CD’s maximum data capacity of about 700 megabytes can be downloaded in a reasonable amount of time. Many record labels already offer CD-quality or higher downloads, but so far the big companies do not: they allow MP3s to be sold online, but not files of 16-bit/44kHz resolution or higher. That will shortly change.

DVD and Blu-ray are a little different. An SD DVD holds about 4.7 gigabytes per layer. It’s possible to download that amount of data, but the time it takes to do so makes it impractical. Blu-ray holds upward of 25 gigabytes per layer -- way too much to download, at least for now. And it would take forever to download the 400 BDs that Sony’s megachanger can hold. In both cases, you’re still better off buying or renting discs to get the quality you need. (Compressed video downloads just don’t cut it, at least for me.)

But Internet accessibility and speed keep improving. Currently, you can get high-speed Internet at home, in your office, even on your mobile phone -- basically, everywhere -- and it’s getting faster and faster. While today’s download speeds make practical only the amount of data a CD can hold, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that, in a year or two, speeds will have increased enough that the download equivalent of a DVD will be feasible -- and not long after, we’ll probably be able to download the contents of Blu-rays as well. Mark my words -- it’s coming.

It will probably be three years before we can conveniently download the equivalent of a Blu-ray Disc, and players such as Sony’s BDP-CX7000ES can be declared officially obsolete. It still might take time to get 400 discs’ worth of data, but I don’t think anyone expects to compile that many movies overnight. Some might still want to play discs, as many do with CDs right now -- but you won’t have to. The future of movie and music playback is discless, and it’s coming sooner than many think.