How Blu-ray stole Christmas (and why that should worry you)

Were you naughty or nice this year? I'll wait a minute while you go look under your tree. Is this the year that Santa brought you a Blu-ray player? No? Maybe you weren't nice enough. A lot of other people will get Blu-ray players (and hopefully piles of discs) this holiday season. That's more evidence that slowly but surely, Blu-ray is taking off. The format had a rocky start before it finally established itself, mainly by killing off its competition, HD DVD. But what's next? The future of Blu-ray is about to change.

Perception Versus Reality

DVD hit the market with a bang. It was such a drastic improvement over VHS that it instantly became a must-have product. What wasn't to like? Pristine picture quality, random access, surround sound, convenient size, and tons of bonus features are just a few things folks flocked to. Everyone, not just gear-lovers, were really excited about the format.

On the other hand, Blu-ray wasn't an overnight sensation. Hampered by a shoot-out with HD DVD, it had a slow start. Today, it's finally reaching the same level of market penetration as DVD at the same point in its product lifetime, but it struggled to get there. Seven percent of American homes have stand-alone Blu-ray players, not including PlayStations. And according to Amazon, 8 of the 10 top selling disc players were Blu-ray, and 5 of the Top 10 movies were Blu-ray. Interestingly, Blu-ray still isn't particularly popular in the professional video world. I work in post-production, and the vast majority of our clients want their content on DVD, not Blu-ray.

The Magic Price Point?

Could the recent boom in Blu-ray sales be attributed to a drop in price? It's possible. But market dynamics are more complicated than that alone. A friend who works in the home theater department at Best Buy says Blu-ray players are selling very well this holiday season, but they're also being given away as part of bundles with HDTVs. Whenever they sell an HD TV, they push Blu-ray, making sure consumers know that Blu-ray will upconvert DVDs. Whatever the reason, this year's Black Friday finally pushed Blu-ray sales into the big leagues.

Pissing Off Your Customers

Getting your biggest fans angry isn't really a good idea for any business. Yet the consumer electronics industry doesn't seem to mind doing it, repeatedly, making equipment obsolete just as folks completely embrace it. DVD was a vast improvement over VHS, but it wasn't high-def, even though high-def was definitely coming. Granted, at the time, the technology didn't exist to fit a high-definition movie onto a single disc, but should Hollywood have waited for an HD format, such as Blu-ray? Of course not, if you remember how much DVD players used to cost, or God forbid, bought an HD DVD player, you know what it's like to try to stay ahead of the curve.

Here's the scoop. The Blu-ray Disc Association has finalized a 3D standard for Blu-ray. The new disc format will provide a full 1080p 3D image on Blu-ray. Great stuff, but here's the rub. Current Blu-ray players won't be able to play the new 3D images at full resolution, though they will play a 2D image from the new 3D discs. PS3 owners are slightly better off — the new spec allows the game console to play 3D content.

In any case, just when you thought it was safe to go into the water, the 3D tailfin appears. Should you buy a Blu-ray player now, or wait? Should you buy the 2D version of Up on Blu-ray, or wait to buy for the 3D version? And what about your TV? Will you have to buy a new 3D model? Or will 3D just be another bust, like most other consumer format launches? Sound familiar? You can thank Hollywood for the confusion.

Too Little Too Late?

Hollywood desperately wants Blu-ray to succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams. But, Blu-ray players support Internet streaming and that poses an interesting challenge for Hollywood. According to my Best Buy source, lots of people are buying Blu-ray specifically for its streaming capabilities. How interesting — buying a state-of-the-art video disc player so you can play some really compressed video available on the Internet. As a pro in the video business, this makes my stomach hurt. But honestly, why not? There's so much instant gratification available on the Web. Why buy a Blu-ray disc when you can just download a movie in minutes? As the music business will certainly tell ya, folks don't seem that devoted to sound quality. Ironically, the streaming capabilities of Blu-ray players might be the feature that ultimately dooms the disc format.

There are many reasons why people will increasingly use the Internet as their in-home video store. The choices are practically infinite, and instantly accessible. Next time you're knocked out by the flu and are lying on the sofa for a week, what are you going to do? Drive to the store to buy or rent a Blu-ray, order one online and wait a few days for it to arrive, or click a few buttons, grab some more tissues and sit back and watch your movie?

Perhaps the very nature of home entertainment is changing. Which do you watch more often — a few YouTube clips or a full movie? There's a growing number of ways that you can access the plethora of media online, and that technology is quickly getting more popular. Roku and TwonkyBeam create products that make streaming easy, to say nothing of the number of TVs with built-in connectivity.

Additionally, more HD content is available on TV. Why buy a Blu-ray movie when HD movies are available on your satellite or cable? For me, that's easy — the quality of picture and sound are still superior on Blu-ray, but then again, remember what MP3 did to the CD. You can bet that Hollywood has plenty of things to worry about. The introduction of 3D Blu-ray is precisely designed to counter the threat of streaming, at least for a while, and put Blu-ray back on everyone's Christmas list. Will that 3D strategy keep Blu-ray cooking, or will the obsolescence and market confusion just leave fans steaming?

So, were you naughty or nice this year? What if you were nice and Santa still didn't bring you a Blu-ray player? Don't despair, maybe Santa is thinking ahead and saving space under the tree next year for your 3D Blu-ray player. The jolly fellow can be tricky like that.