If Blu-ray Is the Last Format, Think How Far Weve Come

Opinion: Bill Gates says Blu-ray will be the last physical media format, ever. That makes David Coursey ponder how far we've come and the "real" broadband that will drive our post-DVD future. It's a story with a very happy ending.

This weeks most interesting quote comes from Bill Gates, who told a college newspaper that Blu-ray, Sonys HD DVD format, "is the last physical format there will ever be."

"Everythings going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk," Gates added. "So, in this way, its even unclear how much [Blu-ray] counts."

Gates had earlier in the interview told the Daily Princetonian that Blu-ray was "very anti-consumer" because its protection scheme was slanted too heavily in favor of the content owners and gave too few rights to consumers.

This isnt a column about Blu-ray, which Bill correctly described and is something only a company that owns as much content as Sony would try to foist on consumers. What really interests me is the idea that content delivery is rapidly going broadband.

Many people remember 8-inch floppy disks. I joined the industry when 5-1/4-inch disks were common and wed just moved from single- to double-sided disks capable of storing a whopping 350KB, at the time enough room for a complete word processing program, circa 1982.

I remember buying a kit to add a CD-ROM drive to a computer, long before they became standard. And, I remember the debate when IBM introduced the 3-1/2-inch non-floppy floppy disk. Removable media has been a critical part of computing for as long as Ive been in the industry and well before. The idea that its clearly on the way out is quite something to think about.

Today, most people dont have the bandwidth necessary to replace a trip to Blockbuster with a download. Even the fastest home Internet connections are in the 6M bps range and most are much slower. My own DSL connection is more in the 1.5M bps range, and even that is faster than most DSL connections in my neighborhood.

Bills end of physical disc formats wont become reality until bandwidth in the 100M bps range or faster is widely available. It would also help if silicon hard drives would come down further in price, replacing our spinning hard drives. Ive previously heard Bill talk about hard drives being replaced by silicon, so I am presuming when he said "hard drives" would become a distribution mechanism that memory cards is what he meant.

/zimages/4/28571.gifMicrosoft tests "virtual Wi-Fi." Click here to read more.

As for streaming bandwidth, 802.11n Wi-Fi is a new format capable of 600M bps over-the-air. Due next year, 802.11n may give us enough bandwidth—for now, any way—to meet the needs of home entertainment, information and communications. Typical throughput could be in the 400M bps range. Thats enough bandwidth to ship multiple HDTV streams throughout the home or office, with room left for phone calls, e-mail, and other applications.

But, even when internal wireless networks get the big speed boost, the connection to the outside world will still be much, much slower. That wont change immediately, but within the lifespan of a media format, like Blu-ray, the jump to 100M bps-or-faster Internet connections seems a reasonable expectation. I am imagining a 10-year lifespan for the Blu-ray format and during that time it seems reasonable that networks will get big speed upgrades. When that happens, Bill will have been proven right.

Im not very confident in the timeframe, although 10 years seems plenty long enough for real broadband to arrive. Key to this will be moves by the telco and cable companies to earn big bucks off streaming on-demand content into customers homes and offices.

Progress in that area has been slower than Id like, but fast enough to believe Blu-ray really will be the last recordable disc format that most people will ever need. Im looking forward not so much to the end of the format, but to the tremendous advances more bandwidth will provide.

The demise of removable disks and moving parts in our computers will doubtless happen, but the concept still seems a bit incredible to me. Thinking about how the media we use has changed over the years, it amazes me how far weve come, how fast the trip has been, and how much remains ahead of us.

Theres something else Bill Gates says. Its that our best inventions are yet ahead of us. As I reflect on where we started and what weve accomplished thus far, Im sure hes right.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at david_coursey@ziffdavis.com.