Moving to digital-first is great, Disney – now go kill DVDs

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 4, 2013

From The News Desk

Disney's announcement that it plans on selling the digital version of "Wreck-It Ralph" before its physical counterparts go on sale is a belated Christmas miracle. Rather than plodding along and hoping that holding onto a digital copy of its videogame-centric film would allow the company to make a higher profit off its Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy bundle, the company seems to be admitting that going digital is the proper course of action, not something meant to be avoided.

This is good news, and may well convince other filmmakers to go digital-first too. Now all Disney has to do is kill the DVD entirely and it'll be at the forefront of movie-watching technology.

DVDs had a good run. Introduced in the 90s, the disc-based format had plenty of benefits over the VHS tapes it replaced. Films could be stored on one disc instead of spread across a number of tapes, the cases were smaller (and thus easier to stack and keep track of), and no one has ever been strangled for forgetting to rewind a DVD once they're done watching it. Compared to what they replaced, DVDs are some seriously high tech.

But those were the 90s, and much like "Saved by the Bell," Pogs (don't worry, I didn't remember 'em either), and scrunchies, it's about time for DVDs to go gently into that goodnight. Have you ever watched a DVD on a high-definition television set and then gone and watched the same film or television show via iTunes or DVD's successor, Blu-ray? If you haven't, take my word for it: There is really no comparison.

Using a high-definition television to watch a DVD is like going out and buying prescription lenses and then reading with dollar-store "reading glasses." And, given that 69 percent of US households have at least one high-definition set, the continued push to keep the DVD format around isn't a problem for "early-adopters" or techies – it's a problem for just about everyone.

Let's ignore the television for a minute, though. (That's what most of us do anyway, right? Turn the TV on and then browse the Web, check Twitter, and play "Clash of Clans"?) Let's focus instead on the devices in our pockets, on our coffee tables, always within arm's reach.

How many tablets have you seen with a built-in DVD player? I'm sure you haven't seen a smartphone ship with one, and with the continued push towards thinner and lighter laptops, a rising number of PCs are shipping without any kind of optical drive as well. The future of computing is literally incompatible with DVDs.

The same can be said of Blu-ray discs as well, but they at least offer a few advantages over digital downloads. Ars Technica ruled that a 1080p file downloaded from iTunes can't quite keep up with a Blu-ray disc, giving film buffs an excuse to keep collecting jeweled cases and wiping away fingerprints. And, for as long as these customers might want a physical disc, Disney and other filmmakers will continue pumping them out.

Offering Blu-ray and DVD discs together makes sense for Disney from a financial standpoint. The company's "Disney Vault," a mythical place where childhood memories are "locked away" until the market peaks and Disney can sell a re-release for $40 a pop, when potential customers convince themselves that owning the same film across different platforms is worth paying for.

There was a time when this was true. When Blu-ray was first released it wasn't clear whether it or HD-DVD would win the battle for preferred high-definition format, Blu-ray players were expensive, and the films themselves were more costly too. Now, however, Blu-ray has won (how many of you even remembered HD-DVDs?), Blu-ray players are cheap, and the films have declined in price as well.

In the future we'll probably wonder at the fact that people used physical media of any kind, whether it's VHS tapes, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray, or any other format. Eventually, the idea of the "combo pack" offering a film in a variety of formats will be an anachronism, a relic of a bygone era.

That won't happen this year. But one can hope that, at the very least, DVDs can be phased out like every other obsolescent format.