4K TV: Sony bets on 'Bag of hurt', Apple doesn't

Sony and Panasonic intend releasing Blu-ray disks capable of storing 300GB or more by the end of 2015; meanwhile Apple [AAPL] seems set to maintain its focus on online distribution of 4K content: Who's right? Is it curtains for optical disks?

[ABOVE: GoPro already offers consumers an affordable 4K video camera.]

Slipped disks

In Tokyo, Sony and Panasonic revealed a deal to jointly develop a standard for larger capacity optical disks. The partners aren't solely focused on DVD/Blu-ray disk replacement, but on data. They hope to jointly develop an optical disc with recording capacity of at least 300GB by the end of 2015 -- but is physical media of this kind still going to be relevant by then?

Reading through the announcement it seems neither partner is especially focused on use of optical drives within the consumer-facing entertainment industry. While they discuss their achievements within this space, it appears the target outcome is to develop inexpensive yet reliable high-capacity optical disks to serve the need of data centers and the video production/broadcast industries.

"In recent years, there has been an increasing need for archive capabilities, not only from video production industries, such as motion pictures and broadcasting, but also from cloud data centers that handle increasingly large volumes of data following the evolution in network services," they state.

It's questionable if the sheer quantity of data that's expected to be in daily production by 2015 will be best served by the firm's offering up of this kind of optical disk.

Data deluge

A cursory search reveals a 2011 claim by CenturyLink which suggests 7.9 zettabytes of data will be created in 2015 alone -- the equivalent of 18 million times the data assets stored by the Library of Congress. Add an influx of intelligent connected devices and the sheer quantity of data being produced will inevitably exceed that predication. And that's going to fill a whole lot of 300GB disks.

The Sony/Panasonic move must also be seen as an attempt to create a relatively cheap and secure data solution upon which to transport future 4K movie titles in native resolution. They are clearly putting together an infrastructure for the creation of such assets; as too has Apple with Final Cut Pro X and the future Mac Pro, both of which support 4K.

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I don't think optical disks will be the future means of 4K content. Movies, TV shows and other video assets may well be made available in 4K, but the transportation and delivery mechanism will be electronic. Cisco's recent (May 2013) Visual Networking Forecast anticipates:

  • In 2017, the gigabyte equivalent of all movies ever made will cross global IP networks every 3 minutes.
  • Global IP networks will deliver 13.8 petabytes every 5 minutes in 2017
  • Nearly a million minutes of video content will cross the network per second in 2017.
  • There will be so much video content in transmission that an individual video watcher will take over 5 million years to watch the quantity of video crossing IP networks that year.
  • The quantity of video on demand traffic will reach the equivalent of 6 billion DVDs each month

The big message is that video traffic online is booming, will continue to boom, and will boom more as HD services proliferate and new video codecs reach prime time: HEVC, for example, promises to deliver higher than HD content at around 50 percent of the bandwidth required for HD today.

Put this together and what do you have? You have a proliferation of video and data and a need for secure storage and delivery systems for that information.

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Online trend

When it comes to consumer-focused video delivery services it seems inevitable Apple will eventually enable UltraHD content acquisition via iTunes. This matches industry trends, of course, though I consider it likely Apple hopes to secure a first mover advantage in terms of implementing such video delivery services in conjunction with or shortly subsequent to the debut of the Apple television.

Conventional broadcasters won't be too far behind. The DVB will at IBC mark its twentieth anniversary with a demonstration of DVB-T2, a new format capable of delivering video resolutions from 4K UltraHD down to the smaller screen resolutions of mobile devices.

Technical readers may want to consider: "Using DVB-T2 transmission, a 4K service utilising HEVC encoding, and mobile service will be delivered in a single 8MHz channel. This is enabled by DVB-T2’s featured use of Multiple PLPs (Physical Layer Pipes) that allow for the separate adjustment of the robustness of each delivered service within a channel to meet the required reception conditions. The PLP for the mobile service is compliant to the T2-Lite parameter set."

Or, in simpler terms, DVB-T2 is designed to deliver high-resolution video content without placing too much strain on the network. Trials have already begun worldwide, with one pay-TV service (SimpliTV) in Austria already offering services based on the standard.

Thus it is clear the industry is moving toward a 4K future, with sundry stakeholders already moving to assemble an infrastructure with which to support future higher than high-def services.

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Good value?

None of this makes any difference to consumers, at least, not yet. 4K-capable televisions cost horrendous quantities of cash; this is changing -- in an aggressive move to capture market share, TCL USA announced its 50-inch UltraHD 4K LED TV this week at the truly remarkable price of $999 (image above).

TCL US president, Michelle Mao, said:

“Similar to what the market saw a dozen years ago with the introduction of HDTVs, 4K UHD TVs are priced so high today that most consumers cannot afford them…While other brands see the introduction of 4K as an opportunity to make large margins -- we see it as an opportunity to demonstrate to US consumers the combination of advanced technology and great value we’ve been delivering across the world for over 30 years.”

Evidently TCL's market attack will force the Sony's and Samsung's of this world to offer their 4K televisions at more reasonable prices. The other truth is that if TCL is in position to introduce these high res televisions at this kind of price, then it must surely be possible for others to introduce similar sets for a similar cost.

This could support a theory that Apple has a market grab plan of its own with Apple television, effectively subsidizing the set through iTunes sales and kickback deals with cable firms.

Within all these deployments Sony and Panasonic's move to offer up 300GB disks appears ever so slightly irrelevant -- though Sony will likely once again attempt to parlay its other assets in order to try to make the tech proliferate.

Yet another 'truck'

In the event cable firms and OTT content providers (Netflix, Lovefilm, Apple) move to offer 4K content streams, then consumers will be under no great obligation to purchase physical copies of movies in the format. The massive quantity of video traffic online and the collapse of video rental firms confirm consumers have already migrated online for their moving picture entertainment.

This means electronics and PC manufacturers are unlikely to bother to offer high-capacity Blu-ray playback as a built-in option on the devices they offer.

This ultimately means Sony and Pansonic's new disk format is unlikely to achieve any great traction within the home entertainment markets.

The optical disk will still be in use, of course, among a small market of hobbyists, and across the production and postproduction industries who may choose to use physical media as a means by which to transport and share projects.

Like the PC, optical media will become trucks, disks will still be around, but won't be anything like as prevalent as they have been in the past.

The future here is being written by the online distribution companies, including established broadcasters, cable companies and OTT players.

"Blu-ray is just a bag of hurt. It's great to watch the movies, but the licensing of the tech is so complex, we're waiting till things settle down and Blu-ray takes off in the marketplace," said Steve Jobs many years ago.

That take off never truly took place.

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