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 major US cities before its nation-wide launch. If one decided to become an early adopter, this meant a $600 investment in a Dolby Digital amp that connected to the receiver, $800 for a shiny new DVD player, and a few hundred to increase the speaker count.
The choice of movies available on the new format, however, was very limited. 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.
Then came a second threat to DVD: retailer Circuit City took the format and created a variant 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.
The introduction of Divx rubbed everyone up the wrong way. It was viewed as Circuit City and the studios trying to control 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.
Divx came out in 1998 and crashed and burned spectacularly. In the process 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 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. This resulted in Best Buy becoming a retail giant, while Circuit City is dead. No doubt there were many more variables, but Circuit City’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.
Later on the investigation journalist Andy Patrizio of Wired News tracked down Jon on IRC and spoke with him. Johansen said 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 using his name. He was only 15 and lived in Norway.
The interview ran on Wired News and drew 400,000 views. In 1999, that was a lot.
There was a hope 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.
Nonetheless the Divx and DeCSS issues, DVD survived studio boycotts and 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 720×480, while high definition TV is 1920×1080. 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 Divx are dead. DVD as a format is fading and the studios have all sharply reduced their home video efforts.
Despite this, 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 video.
At the same time there is a number of industries out there where DVD not only maintained its positions, but also improved them over the last two decades. One of them is digital data archiving and preservation. Long term data storage becomes only possible when a storage media is able to resist the external environment challenges, such as temperature and humidity contrasts.
Falcon Technologies International continuously conducts quality assurance tests to make sure that optical media archival solutions are able to store and preserve data for at least 500 yeas. There is no other data storage solution that can guarantee such a long minimum lifespan at the moment. The closest possible technology is 5D quartz disc, but it is still in the stage of concept.
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.