OPINION: UltraHD Blu-ray?

I really want an UltraHD Blu-ray player, which is a sure sign the format is headed for an early death. As my friends know, I have the worst luck picking sides in electronics battles. I was the guy who picked Digital Compact Cassette over CD, the guy who picked Sega over Nintendo, the guy who picked Windows Media Audio over iTunes. Oh yeah, and HD-DVD. I picked that too. So if there’s a format war, chances are I’m on the wrong side of it.

UltraHD Blu-ray seems like the perfect way to show the movies you really care about. Netflix, iTunes, and other services are getting better, but their HD products are just nowhere near the quality of physical media. That’s probably OK for something you’ll watch once, but for the ownership experience nothing beats a disc. Not to mention, you own a disc (but not the content on it, that’s another issue) and can actually give it to someone if you want. There’s a lot to like about physical media and the best part is that you’re getting a file size that’s practically impossible to achieve with downloads, until we all get GigaPower anyway.

And I’m convinced it will fail, just like most of the other formats I’ve supported. In fact I’m still not completely on board with 4K, even though the stuff I’ve seen from DIRECTV is gorgeous and proves that there is a way to get high quality over the air. Streaming can’t touch satellite delivery when it comes to this kind of bandwidth requirement. Over the weekend I found myself wishing for a 4K master of The Force Awakens, one of the few films of the last five years that I found truly theatre-worthy. And keeping in mind that Star Trek (2009) was just released on UltraHD Blu-ray, it set me to thinking.

The issue with UltraHD Blu-ray is that it’s better than good enough, and that will be its downfall. I think there are several distinct phases to high technology… let me lay it out to you as I see it:

Early Adopter This is that period when things are evolving fast and people pay a lot of money for stuff.

Mainstream The technology has reached public awareness and while still expensive, people pay for the quality they want.

Economy of Scale The technology is popular enough that the factories are paid for so prices drop quickly.

Good Enough The technology is mature and people are willing to accept slightly lower quality for an extremely low price.

Obsolete The technology is no longer interesting and it begins to disappear

Graybeard The technology is only interesting to people who hold onto things for a long time. Prices actually rise because of scarcity.

The problem is that UltraHD Blu-ray is actually in the “early adopter” phase while video in general is in the “good enough” phase. Even the poor quality HD you get from streaming is good enough because the price is so low. That means there’s really no huge mandate to move to a very expensive new technology. At best, UltraHD Blu-ray is actually most interesting to the “Graybeard” type who is looking to replace a very expensive mid-2000s video setup. This is the sort of person who may or may not still have a wall of vinyl records, who claims to see the difference between film and digital still cameras and prefers film.

It seems to me that there’s no harm in putting UltraHD Blu-ray out there as an option at a price that makes money, but I don’t see it really ever becoming a mainstream product, any more than laserdisc was two generations ago. At best it will be a niche product for home theater geeks (of which I am certainly one) and it will survive until the point comes when you can download the same quality in real time. I expect that will be no more than 3-5 years from now, which is about the time you’ll start seeing UltraHD Blu-ray discs in the bin at your local thrift store.

In the meantime, I’m desperately fighting the urge to get one.