Monday, October 26, 2009

Charge Shot!!! predicts: Blu Ray? No way!

i see... that special touches have been planned with you in mindWe touched upon this one a bit in our truncated podcast yesterday – last week, Microsoft’s Steve “batshit crazy” Ballmer mentioned the Xbox 360 and Blu Ray in relatively close proximity to one another in conversation with a tech journalist.

Whatever he really said is not important – the story that The Internet ran was that Steve Ballmer confirmed that a Blu Ray add-on for the Xbox 360 was on its way. As happens with many Internet rumors, Ballmer later issued a clarifying statement denying that Microsoft was working on such a thing.

A couple of weeks ago, Apple’s rumor mill was a-churning, and many speculated that Apple’s upcoming refresh of its popular iMac was going to have a Blu Ray drive as an add-on component. Lo and behold (seriously, you guys, lo and behold it), Apple’s refreshed hardware came out last week with nary a mention of the technology that Steve “secret liver transplant” Jobs once called a “bag of hurt.”

Allow me to put on my turban and dig my crystal ball out of my sock drawer – I don’t think that Blu Ray is going to come to either of these devices. Ever. Am I freaking you out yet?!

Let’s review the facts: The Xbox 360 is a high-definition video game console that increasingly positions itself as a home entertainment center. Microsoft once released an HD-DVD add on for the console – sales were never fantastic, and when Blu Ray “beat” HD-DVD as the high-definition format of choice, prices dropped through the floor and Microsoft swept it under the rug.

And yet, even though Blu Ray drives and devices are beginning to dip into the realm of what might be considered “affordable” for the average person, there’s no Blu Ray add-on planned.

More facts: Apple’s new iMacs use new 16:9 aspect ratio LCD displays, instead of the 16:10 displays used in their Macbook line and in many PCs – 16:9 is the aspect ratio used in widescreen televisions. This switch is particularly suited for movies and widescreen TV shows, which are released to the home video market almost exclusively in 16:9.

Apple is playing up this “aspect” of their new iMacs, and is even promoting them (and their admittedly gorgeous, TV-sized 27-inch displays) as high-definition movie-watching computers of choice. And yet, no Blu Ray option, not even in the very highest-end models.

The continued exclusion of Blu Ray from these devices at this late date, long after the “format wars” between HD-DVD and Blu Ray have reached a decisive conclusion, seems significant, almost pointed. Why are these two companies keeping what is supposed to be the high-definition platform of choice out of their premier high-definition devices?

It’s pretty obvious – both Microsoft and Apple are washing their hands of disc-based high-def, in favor of shows and movies that are either downloaded or streamed. Think about it – Microsoft offers most major network TV shows for download on the Xbox, and Microsoft’s partnership with Netflix makes their entire streaming library available to Xbox users – these movies will stream in high-definition if they’re available, and if your connection is fast enough.

Apple, likewise, has the iTunes store setup to handle their high-definition video, and they’re putting a lot of time, money and effort into making the iTunes video store just as successful as the iTunes music store has been.

And why would either company want to put a Blu Ray drive in their devices anyway? It would increase costs and require them to pay licensing fees to Sony, a direct competitor in the video game and home computer markets – all of this for a format that’s still having trouble gaining traction, given that its benefits over DVD are nowhere near as great as DVD’s benefits over VHS.

We’re also seeing the beginning of disc drive-less devices, not just from Apple in the Macbook Air and the new top-end Mac Mini model, but from Dell in their thin-and-light z-series notebooks, and in nearly every netbook under the sun. Just as the floppy drive began disappearing from computers in the early 2000s, the optical drive is beginning to fade, to be replaced by digital downloads, video streaming sites like Hulu, and gigantic, dirt-cheap flash drives.

It has gotten to the point where I facepalm in disbelief whenever I see another rumor about Blu Ray in the Xbox or in the Macs start up – that ship has sailed, guys. It has become clear that Apple and Microsoft intend to ignore Blu Ray to the greatest extent possible, and that we’ll see Xboxes and Macs without optical drives before we’ll see them include Blu Ray.

You know. Probably.