Monday, February 1, 2010

Optical Media, I Hear Your Mother Calling For You

The Rant
Let me get right to it: every year that passes, I find it disgusting that we are still using CDs, DVDs, and now Blue-ray. Yes, I was around for laserdiscs and even mini-discs, but even mentioning them reminds me of the reactions in Harry Potter when Voldemort is named out loud. I wish everyone would start to feel the same about the aforementioned trifecta of shrug-inducing storage media. I hear they have found a way to squeeze a bit more out of a thin platter of pits by doubling the layers and changing the nanometers of spacing you can read and write to and it makes me slightly more excited than watching the proverbial paint dry.

Now, do not get me wrong -- I don't mean to imply that optical media was a bad idea. I am simply saying that we have grown past it. When the compact disc first arrived, it ushered in a new era of storage and fidelity. Listening to CD audio was a beautiful thing and the first time I loaded Encarta on my PC I thought I was king of the world. Capacities continued to grow (remember when it hit 700MB the first time?) and a couple of new formats emerged since then such as DVD and Blu-ray.

With DVD tech, movies hit on the same fidelity as audio did when CD technology emerged. When 4.7GB of excellence wasn't enough, they went double-layer, double-sided, and eventually birthed the Blu-ray and HD-DVD (ahem) standards. Blu-ray (as of right now) allows a storage capacity of somewhere between 100 and 200 GB. Getting it to the higher end of the range apparently will require some firmware upgrades for players, but I will leave that piece of the puzzle out for now. While the size and shape of optical media has remained consistent (to the lay person), the underlying format continues to evolve to work with these discs. The problem I see is in the continual reinvestment into a medium that is vulnerable to scratches, warping, aging, etc.

When the Nintendo Wii came out, I felt confused to find that you couldn't play DVD movies on it despite it taking optical discs that (to me) resembled them so closely. Some may say that this is by design (and I agree) and that I shouldn't expect a gaming console to play discs of that sort. However, I am further confused then as Nintendo is on the cusp of playing Netflix movies through the Wii console. OK, so Nintendo didn't really think that through -- I can live with that.

The Proposal
I know this is probably easy to say, but why aren't we switching to NAND devices (flash memory, thumb drives, etc) for our staple storage of multimedia? Look at the storage (less cabinet space), capacity (check out this story about the nearing delivery of 600GB flash devices), and portability. While you may think you are only trading scratch vulnerability for water vulnerability, there is so much more at play here. These devices and their mated components (connectors, extenders, receivers, etc) will continue to get cheaper and would do so even faster with the type of support given by such a massive adoption like the discs have seen.

Picture this: instead of your friendly Redbox guy (let's call him Frank) doing his movie crate changeup as usual, the Redbox is loaded with flash drives and a massive hard drive. Frank comes by and plugs a cord into the Redbox (or maybe swaps out the hot-swappable hard drives) and instantly the new content is available at the Redbox. You no longer have to worry that the movie you want to rent isn't at that particular location because every location has everything in the Redbox library. Then the machine is really just responsible for doing a copy of the movie "image" to the flash drive and dispensing. All the other Redbox rules apply; if you lose it or forget to bring it back, you are getting dinged each day until you eventually own it.

In the audio realm, I have noticed that USB ports are becoming mainstream on car audio head units and integration with XM/Sirius, iPods, and other external components are becoming easier. For this you certainly have my thanks. Do us all a favor, however, and don't make DVD and Blu-ray more ubiquitous by making your sets accept them. Instead, maintain favor towards the obvious consumer push for portable digital media that can take the (literal) bumps in the road. Throw in some more ports if you are feeling froggy. Focus on supporting native decoding of the popular formats (WMA, AAC, etc) like you have been, but decode from flash drives instead of (or in addition to) CDs.

The Final Word
I realize that my proposal takes time and money, but I have to be honest with you, the industry: I am disappointed it has gone on this long and I see no progress in this direction. Spare me the next nanometer laser for reading pits on a platter and take this where it needs to go.
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Firecracker, father, friend. Honorable, humorist, heathen. Performer, programmer, producer. Seeking, social, sarcastic. Loyal, logical, lasting. Bold, belying, benevolent. Gamer, genuine, grinning. Reader, redeeming, ridiculous.

On and off blogger, film producer, and programmer. Keurig addict. Frequent moviegoer. 

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