When I got my new laptop just over a year ago, it included a feature that was not among those I felt were essential: an HD-DVD drive. I could have bought a laptop with almost duplicate specs excepting that it had a Blu-Ray drive, but it would have cost an additional $900. Besides, I was pretty sure that Blu-Ray would go the way of the Betamax. How could something with such a huge price differential compete?
It turns out I was wrong, and Sony was right. The war between the two high definition disc formats is over and Blu-Ray has carried the day. But it won’t impact me a great deal. While I have used my drive to burn regular DVDs, I have only actually viewed an HD-DVD disc on it once. I once watched five minutes of the disc that came with the laptop, but I frankly don’t watch much TV. Unless it’s an extremely compelling flick, I just can’t seem to find the time to sit down and watch it. So after five minutes, something else came up and I never went back to it.
Until Blu-Ray disc burning gets cheap enough to be included as a common laptop feature, it won’t matter to me that my laptop doesn’t have a Blu-Ray player. And probably by that time, it will be time to replace my laptop anyway. For me, the high-def disc wars were kind of like the cola wars. Since I don’t drink cola (and rarely drink soda of any kind), I just don’t care.
Even though Blu-Ray has won out, don’t expect Americans to run out and plop down $400 for a new disc player. They’ve come down a lot in price, but they’re going to have to get a lot cheaper. And when will Blu-Ray recorders become inexpensive enough for average folks to buy them?
In the meantime, this WSJ editorial suggests that the long disc war may have opened the door for “other home-viewing options -- from high definition video-on-demand cable offerings to digital downloads off the Internet.” Sony’s victory, which is seen as sort of revenge for its Betamax defeat, may turn out to be a pyrrhic one.
On a related note, the ability to get high-def content via the Internet is the topic of this WSJ op-ed by the Discovery Institute’s Bret Swanson and George Gilder. By 2015, the institute estimates, Internet traffic will exceed “1,000 exabytes, or one million million billion bytes.” This, they say, “will require some $100 billion in new Internet infrastructure in the U.S. over the next five years.”
That kind of investment will only occur if the market is sufficiently free. It will not happen if we have a “digital traffic cop … policing every intersection of the Internet.” The current push for what regulation supporters call net neutrality, Swanson and Gilder argue, would mean that “Every price, partnership, advertisement and experimental business plan on the Net would have to look to Washington for permission.” It would be a bureaucrat’s dream, but a consumer’s nightmare.
So how do we deal with the fact that infrastructure companies in the U.S. have been slow to implement newer technologies and more favorable pricing plans? Swanson and Gilder suggest, “New pricing schemes that charge per byte consumed might also help to manage supply and demand on the Internet.” A similar approach sort of works for the wireless phone industry.
It would also help to open up the field of competition. Jesse Harris says here that the government involvement in the teleco industry has been a steady string of bungles. He says that we need “a wholesale telecommunications network that remains retailer-neutral.” I’m not sure I agree with Jesse’s proposed solutions, but I am sure that the path to substantial improvement of our current systems does not run through the slaughterhouse of more federal regulation.