Tech Trends '09: Gently Down the Stream

Okay. Let's begin by taking a deep breath. Breathe in and then out. Again. Good! Now, let me explain that it might be time for another paradigm shift. Remember the first time you drove a car? Or kissed your sweetheart? Or chugged an entire spray can of cheese? Yes, your life was never the same afterward.

The latest paradigm shift is even bigger, and involves technology. It rivals the first time you saw the Web, sent an e-mail, or made a call on a cellphone. This new shift involves the way movies, music, and other programs are delivered to you. It's called streaming. Let's consider some of the essential questions about streaming, and then try to answer the most important question of them all: Is it time for you to start to stream?

WHAT THE HECK IS STREAMING?

Streaming is really nothing new. When you turn on a radio or a TV or watch a pay-per-view cable channel, you receive "streams" of audio/video for playback. But recently, the term has taken on a more specific meaning. Streaming refers to A/V content delivered by way of a telecommunications network like the Internet. It's somewhat different from downloading because with streaming, you don't have to wait for the entire file to download. You can start watching (or listening) immediately - as long as the streaming bit rate is at least marginally faster than the viewing (or listening) bit rate. The stream might be live (such as a sporting event) or on-demand (such as a movie). The latter is certainly the most prevalent, which is why we'll be focusing on video-on-demand (VOD) streaming.

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

Are you kidding me? For starters, as the music industry will sorrowfully tell you, the Internet has rewritten all the business models - especially if you're in the business of delivering and selling content. The idea of going to a record store and buying a disc is simply incomprehensible to many younger consumers. They demand the convenience of previewing, buying, and receiving music wherever they happen to be. The delivery system can be cellphone, cable modem, DSL, fiber-optic cable, or however they happen to be connected to the Great Jukebox in the Sky. Add to that the consumer demand for greater content flexibility. Instead of a CD, many music lovers prefer a file that can be easily moved and copied and then played on many different devices. Bottom line: Like it or not, music and video streaming are almost certainly the future of the entertainment industry.

IS THIS ANOTHER FORMAT WAR?

That, my friend, is the zillion-dollar question. More specifically, you can place your bets on what impact streaming will have on Blu-ray Discs. As high-tech as it is, Blu-ray represents the old paradigm of pressed discs, neatly arranged on a bookshelf. To its great advantage, Blu-ray offers the highest fidelity currently available. Its huge bandwidth is something that streams can only dream about. But with Blu-ray, you must have the physical thing in your hands, and that means you must first obtain it through rental or purchase. Streams are enormously more ubiquitous and, well, fluid. You could potentially be anywhere and, on a whim, have access to thousands of programs.

Certainly, Internet downloading put the whammy on the CD. In the same way, streaming competes against Blu-ray. But whether streams will annihilate discs, or whether they will coexist, remains to be seen. In either case, it might be a reasonably safe bet to assume that Blu-ray will be the last disc format. By the time Blu-ray is technologically obsolete, there will be no demand for another format. (Unless there's a 4K-resolution disc format - see "Special K") In fact, it will be improvements in streaming that will eventually kill off Blu-ray.

That begs the question: Should you skip Blu-ray altogether and instead go cold turkey to streaming? It's certainly an option. The streaming libraries are growing every day, as are delivery options. The biggest factor in making that decision is your tolerance for lower picture quality. As we'll see, that's streaming's Achilles' heel.

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