Okay, so this is just my personal opinion, but I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates is getting way ahead of his market.
Speaking at Harvard University, Bill Gates has picked the hard drive and streaming over the Internet as the likely death knell for disc formats. Gates branded high-capacity discs like HD-DVD and Blu-Ray “the last physical format we’ll ever have.” With Live on Xbox 360 set to deliver full games as well as demos, videos and music, Gates’ comments appear to explain why Microsoft hasn’t embraced the HD-DVD for the Xbox 360.
I know how much of a pain it is to have to move data from one hard-drive to the next, but when I had to buy a new computer I didn’t need to do anything with my DVD collection. It was still there. When my hard-drive died from a mechanical fault and most data was utterly irretrievable the DVDs on my shelf didn’t mind. When I pay for a film I want to be able to know that I own it for as long as I look after it, rather than hoping that the data on the drive doesn’t corrupt because a kid in Brazil worked out a clever way to get past my firewall and anti-virus software. Some of the videos I own I’ve had for well over a decade, in the meantime I’ve seen countless computing platforms disappear beneath the wave of progress, but that video is still there, ready to be watched without me needing to work to upkeep it (other than perhaps giving it a bit of a dust occasionally!).
I don’t deny that in maybe ten or fifteen years that data will have become so fluid that these issues are finally outdated, that the memory of the average computer will be sufficient to carry every film I’ve ever owned without blinking an eye, and that this data will be as secure as a physical media but as easily transferable as lending a DVD to a friend or putting the box on a shelf in a new house, but we’re not there yet.
Perhaps the most important thing that I think Bill Gates is overlooking is the fondness people have for physical formats. We have lived for millennia with the idea of physical ownership and I don’t think it’s going to entirely vanish overnight, especially not without a major rethink in the way that entertainment media operates. To give an example, I’ve got an original copy of Fight Club, a great film that I thoroughly enjoy, but somehow the DVD has become scratched. This is the first time that this has happened to a disk that I own and it’s pretty frustrating (yes, physical media definitely has its risks too!) but I don’t want to pay for it again, so I might get a friend to run off a copy of the one he owns. I’ve paid for it, so why shouldn’t I own it? In the future of Bill Gates there will be no physical evidence of ownership to justify replacement and if one film becomes damaged the whole collection could go.
It’s the job of people like Bill Gates to be optimistic about the future, but I think on this one he’s underestimated people’s attachment to physical media. To use another paradigm, electronic ink may be the future of newspapers, but I can’t see books disappearing in our lifetimes.