The DVD format at 20: Where it's been and where will it go?

The format had a rough start. Its future isn't much rosier.

DVD Player thinkstock
Credit: Thinkstock

It was 20 years ago this month that consumer electronics companies Sony and Toshiba launched a new home video format called Digital Video Disc, or DVD. The format promised a four-fold increase in resolution over VHS and the permanence of music CDs, in that the video would not degrade as you played it.

The DVD had a lot of promise. It would be a new optical format for PCs, since the CD-ROM format had reached its capacity rather quickly, and it would also be used as a new format for music, called DVD-Audio. But the launch in the U.S. on March 19 was centered around home video.

It's hard to overstate how different and primitive things were back then. We all had CRT televisions that used a 4:3 aspect ratio and watched movies using the TV's built-in speakers. DVD used a format called Dolby Digital 5.1, a 6-speaker surround methodology that virtually no one knew anything about, and none of the stereo receivers had it built-in.

DVD rolled out in seven cities around the U.S. before its national launch. Los Angeles was one of them, and it was my home, so I decided to become an early adopter for once because the format had so much promise. This meant a $600 investment in a Dolby Digital amp that connected to my receiver, $800 for a shiny new JVC DVD player, and a few hundred to increase my speaker count.

The choice of movies, though, stunk. Fox, Paramount, Disney and Universal did not support the format at launch, so many movies were unavailable and would not be for years. The studios feared theft of the content and people stealing perfect copies of their work. Bootleg VHS was one thing, since they degraded, but a DVD copy would never degrade, and they were rightfully concerned after the events of 1999 (more on that later).

Then came a second threat to DVD: retailer Circuit City took the format and created a bastard child called Divx. Divx was different in that you had to connect a phone line to the player and basically get approval to watch it. You could buy the movie for $4.50 and watch it once, then pay $3.25 to watch it again, or pay $12.49 for unlimited viewing.

It rubbed everyone the wrong way. This was Circuit City and the studios trying to control our viewing habits and get more money out of us for each viewing. The reaction among internet fans of DVD was incredible, with sites like The Digital Bits leading an unrelenting anti-Divx charge. I had a front row seat for it all as a reporter for TechWeb at the time and yeah, I was a little biased.

Divx came out in 1998 and crashed and burned spectacularly. In the process, I think it also took down Circuit City. At the time of DVD's launch, Best Buy was a modest chain, but it threw its support behind DVD fully. On every DVD board I read, people swore they would never set foot in Circuit City again for the Divx effort. They all supported Best Buy and gave it their business. The result is Best Buy is a retail giant while Circuit City is dead. No doubt there were many more variables, but CC's ill-fated Divx project had at least something to do with its fall.

In 1999, the holdouts were starting to come on board. Stephen Spielberg was among the last to do so, not even allowing movies he executive produced to be released on DVD, until that year.

And then it happened. A kid in Norway named Jon Johansen produced a small utility called DeCSS, which copied the video file off a DVD, removed the encryption, and wrote the video back out without the encryption. Thus perfect copies were made, realizing the fear of every studio.

At the time, I had a friend who worked in the MPAA's anti-piracy division who sent me a link to DeCSS and asked me to see if it worked. It did. One day later I was doing a demo for the CTO of the MPAA along with other folks, and there were some unhappy faces in that room. I was later told that they were on the phone to legendary MPAA chief Jack Valenti before I even got out of the parking garage.

I tracked down Jon on IRC and spoke with him at length. He told me that a PC DVD player made by a company called Xing failed to encrypt their deprotection key, so he was able to make DeCSS from that. He agreed to be interviewed and didn't mind me using his name. He was 15 and lived in Norway. "What are they going to do to me?" he joked. Oh, just spend the next several years trying to destroy your young life.

My stories ran on Wired News and drew 400,000 views. In 1999, that was a lot. I was interviewed by CBS Radio and NPR. And man did all hell break loose. For me it was a technology story but it fast became a legal one, so I stepped back and let Wired News's resident legal writer, Declan McCullagh, handle it. I had hoped that since DVD was still in its early days they could do some kind of firmware upgrade to fix the security and render DeCSS useless, but they never did, and now DVD ISOs clog BitTorrent.

DVD would survive studio boycotts, Divx and DeCSS to thrive. By 2003, sales surpassed VHS. It created a collector culture that didn't exist in VHS, since the discs didn't degrade in quality. Also, with DVD extras, studios started adding director's cuts, deleted scenes, behind the scenes interviews, and other interesting qualities. People built libraries in the hundreds and even thousands.

In 2006 came another problem: a format split. DVD's resolution is 720x480, while high definition TV is 1920x1080. That's actually six times the resolution. HDTV was coming into play and suddenly DVDs looked like VHS by comparison.

Two competing factions came out with HD-versions of DVD. Sony had Blu-ray, a completely new design with higher capacity, while Toshiba led the way with HD DVD, a derivative of DVD with a lower capacity. After a two year fight (2006-2008), Blu-ray gained momentum and Toshiba threw in the towel. It was in some ways a Pyrrhic victory. Blu-ray won the physical media war only to have its lunch eaten by on-demand and streaming.

And so here we are 20 years later. Video stores have all but vanished from the retail landscape. Sony is no longer an electronics company beyond the PlayStation, and Toshiba is in such dire financial straits it may not survive. DVD-Audio never went anywhere despite being a massive improvement over Compact Disc audio. Circuit City and Blockbuster are dead. DVD as a format is fading and the studios have all sharply reduced their home video efforts.

Gone are those spectacular special edition DVDs like the four-disc special editions New Line Home Video issued for "The Lord of the Rings" movies or the amazing nine-disc "Alien Quadrilogy." Studios just stopped caring.

I had held out hope that the rise of 4K resolution would spark a revival of the DVD format because as it is, HD video streaming is compromised compared to a Blu-ray DVD. Netflix and the cable companies have to compress the daylights out of the video to send it down the old copper wires that make up so much of our infrastructure. As it is, feasible 4K streaming is years off. But it seems people just don't want to go out and get a disc only to return it a few days later.

DVD is even dying on the PC. More and more PCs come without an optical drive now, and I'm even seeing some towers for system builders that have no 5.25" drive bays.

But you know, we have a history of discarding technologies and then realizing what we've lost. Print books are coming back into favor, as is vinyl for music. Maybe DVD will get a boost from 4K.

One thing's for sure, no one could have predicted what the first 20 years of DVD would be like, so don't even try to guess then next 20.

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