Star Wars on Blu-Ray: Using hard science to predict the format’s decline

Posted on 10 January 2011 by Quaid

I’ve written quite a few articles about the blu-ray format and what I think about the future of HD cinema.  So it should come as no surprise that I believe the writing is on the wall for blu-ray, like DVD and VHS before it, to fade away fairly quickly and be replaced with a new format, most likely direct rental and download via web sources.

I mean, when you really look at it we already have awesome options to rent and buy HD video.  iTunes offers direct downloads of popular films for the (admittedly pricey) rental fee of $3.99.  Its movie purchase prices are sometimes competitive to blu-ray…of course you don’t get all the cool special features.

But services like Netflix also offer live streaming of HD movies, and in the near future I think you can look forward to these web-based services expanding their libraries and dropping their prices.  And with new and improved forms of compression and faster high-speed internet infrastructure, the picture quality of these movies will continue to improve, eventually rivaling blu-ray.

None of this information is new or shocking. New technology doesn’t last, and the latest and greatest format will invariably fall into obscurity.  The reason I bring it up, though, is that there is now a compelling piece of anecdotal evidence that blu-ray might be on the decline.  That evidence comes in the form of an announcement from Lucasfilm: the Star Wars saga is coming to blu-ray.

Big deal, right? I mean, it makes perfect sense for these visually rich, popular adventure films to come to the best format possible.  In fact, it’s surprising that it took Lucas this long to convert his beloved films to the new format.

Exactly.  And there lies the crux of my argument.

George Lucas, for all his talk about being on the cutting edge of technology, is notoriously slow to embrace new formats and even slower to give an audience what they want.  We saw this back in the early 2000′s when Lucas ignored fans’ demands to put the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD.  While the DVD format was made available in the US in 1996, the trilogy wasn’t released until 2004, and the “original versions” weren’t released until 2006, a full ten years after the DVD format was brought to market.

That same year (2006) the first BD-ROM players shipped.  So by the time we had all the versions of the Star Wars trilogy on DVD, the format was already on its way out and was swiftly being replaced by the superior Blu-Ray format.  Around this time, everyone was asking whether Blu-Ray or HD-DVD would be the winner of the new format wars.  And some were asking the question: with DVD having a shelf life of about ten years before becoming obsolete, how long will blu-ray last?

I think Lucasfilm’s announcement might clue us in to how we should answer that question.  The answer won’t make blu-ray enthusiasts happy.

With DVD, it took Lucasfilm eight years to embrace the format.  Now the company has jumped on the blu-ray bandwagon in just five years.  This could mean one of two things.  First, that Lucas learned from his previous mistakes and is correcting them.

But judging by 1) the non-inclusion of the “original version” on the blu-ray and 2) the entire prequel trilogy, Lucas might be incapable of learning from the past.  So that leaves us with a second option.

Maybe the entire blu-ray life cycle is moving faster than DVD did.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it.  People, in their eagerness to jump on the HD bandwagon, will embrace whatever format is available.  And even though better, easier, non-physical formats are in the works, people are just chomping at the bit to get their movies in HD.  So blu-ray blows up fast and companies like Lucasfilm are in a greater hurry to get their movies to market on blu-ray.  Maybe because they know that the format has a shorter shelf-life and will be replaced by direct download in the near future.

Even if we do the straight math on this, though, and assume history will repeat itself, we only have a couple of years of strong blu-ray left before another technology is introduced.  The first DVD edition of Star Wars came out in 2004, and blu-ray was released in 2006.  By that logic, the next best technology will be released two years from now in 2013.  If we go by DVD rules, that means the format will have about four years in which it languishes and slowly loses market share before being overtaken by that new technology.  So by 2017, blu-ray should be as obsolete as DVDs are right now.

Then again, if you trust my logic about the format having a shorter lifespan (hence Lucasfilm jumping on the bandwagon earlier), then we have to do some harder math.  Lucas released the DVDs eight years after DVD was brought to market.  He released the blu-rays five years after blu-ray was brought to market.  That means we have to multiply the rest of the blu-ray lifecycle timetable by five-eighths (or .625).  So the “two years until the release of the next big format” changes to 1.25 years, and the “four years until blu-ray is as obsolete as DVD is now” changes to 2.5 years.

With that math in place, in 3.75 years, or roundabout 2014 or 2015, blu-ray will rapidly be fading out of the public consciousness.

It’s science.

But there is a silver lining.  Right now, digital download technology is still racing to match the image quality of blu-ray.  When this newer, higher-quality direct download service (or services) replaces blu-ray, I can’t see the image quality being too much better than the current blu-ray discs (which look admittedly fantastic).

AND by then there will probably be some program or service that allows blu-ray users to digitize their movies and watch them through their computers or TV boxes.  So what I’m saying is that while blu-ray might be on its way out in a relatively short period of time, there is no reason to think that purchase of blu-ray discs is a waste of money.  The format should, with a few technological innovations, port over perfectly to the newer technology which will almost certainly be digital video with no disc or cartridge in sight.

So buy those discs, and don’t worry about the consequences! Come on, everybody’s doing it. And your Uncle George says it’s okay.

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Keith Fontaine Says:

    I will not buy Blu-Ray discs. Price, particularly today in a struggling economy like America is very important to a generation that is becoming more cost concious. The older format is cheaper & does the job nicely for me. Besides, if I need to replace my DVD player, I can buy one for well under $29.99. A Blu-Ray player costs more than twice that, and I can’t see the sense in paying out MORE money for a Blu-Ray DVD disc. I’ll stick with the older DVD format. Thank you.

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