How DVD Recording Got Paused (June 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one served as a belated correction to a few Post columns when it ran on June 6, 2012.)

Five years ago, a newspaper technology columnist heralded an overdue upgrade to a popular category of consumer electronics—adding a “record” button to the DVD player.

DVD recording“The DVD player has been around for more than a decade, but now it has finally grown up,” this writer declared. As proof, he cited an end to a squabble over recording formats (decried in a 2003 column by the same scribe) and these devices’ newly-gained ability to record over-the-air digital broadcasts.

The writer was me, and the forecast was wrong. DVD recording never took off or even picked up much speed on the runway.

CEA’s figures show U.S. sales to dealers of DVD recorders crested at 2.47 million in 2009 before ebbing to an estimated 797,000 last year. Meanwhile, combined U.S. shipments of DVD and Blu-ray players topped out at 34.04 million in 2011 and then dropped to 24.71 million in 2011.

I put my money where my words were, buying a Toshiba DVD recorder in 2009. But after a brief flurry of use archiving old videotape recordings to disc, we rarely employed it for anything but playing CDs and movies.

After a friend sold me his TiVo HD–fortunately, with lifetime-of-the-product service attached–we retired the recorder to the upstairs TV and picked up a Blu-ray player for our living room. (Note that after all of my earlier skepticism of 3-D TV, the under-$100 model I chose for other reasons happens to support 3-D.)

Our DVD recorder now sits alone and insert upstairs; I don’t even think I’ve plugged it back in after testing a Roku Web-media receiver with that set.

What did I miss? And are there any lessons to draw from my errant estimate?

Four come to mind.

It’s easier to survive a format war without competition. The debut of the DVD itself was held back by lengthy disagreements over its capacity and features, but viewers didn’t have an obvious, appealing alternative to VHS to buy.

That was not the case when manufacturers lined up behind opposing recordable formats: DVD-RW (often pronounced as “minus RW” by opponents), DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. It took a few years of dispute before the industry agreed to support both the -RW and +RW standards, leaving behind DVD-RAM.

(If you could redesign the format from scratch, you might pick DVD-RAM, which allowed much of the same play-while-recording flexibility of hard drive-equipped digital video recorders. But most existing DVD players couldn’t read those discs.)

This delay cost DVD recording more than I had realized in 2007. It allowed DVRs to cement themselves as the video-recording solution of choice.

Pay-TV incompatibility can kill video hardware. Aside from some models with “QAM” tuners for basic-tier cable and fewer, older models with CableCard slots, DVD recorders couldn’t record pay-TV programming unless their intrepid owners set up “IR blaster” controls for their cable and satellite boxes.

But why bother when a cable or satellite company will rent you a DVR that just works with its service? Nobody had a good answer to that question, and newer ventures in home video hardware—for instance, the Google TV hardware I tried in 2010—have run into the same problem.

So if you want to know why you still can’t buy a Blu-ray recorder for your TV in the U.S., there’s one answer.

Just because the features you want exist in separate products doesn’t mean they’ll all come together. I expected DVD recorders would soon gain the ability to record in “enhanced definition” 480p resolution—the same upgrade provided by progressive-scan DVD players and generally welcomed by viewers. That never happened, leaving DVD recording stuck in standard-def.

I also though it obvious to use the “TV Guide on Screen” metadata sent out with over-the-air digital TV broadcasts to provide a simple interactive program grid with one-touch recording. Instead, DVD recorders, our purchase included, required me to punch in start and stop times, as if I were still using the top-loading VCR my parents bought in the early 1980s.

Portability isn’t as important as I think. My advocacy for DVD recording was rooted in the idea that viewers would want a permanent copy of their favorite videos—say, the broadcast of their team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Digital video recorders, however, have generally left out convenient video-export features ever since ReplayTV declined to enable a FireWire digital-video output on its pioneering DVRs. And viewers seem okay with that, as long as they can at least transfer copy-restricted recordings from one DVR to the next.

That’s something to consider as home movie viewing shifts from discs to online streaming. I would like to think that some movies are works for the ages and merit safekeeping in physical media you can take wherever you go. But if you can pull up your favorite flicks online, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Which somehow seems a little sad.

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A bout of broken links at CEA’s blog

The Consumer Electronics Association recently moved its Digital Dialogue blog over to a new content management system. That wouldn’t be a news item to me, except that when CEA switched its blog to the same CMS that runs the rest of the site, they elected not to bring over entries older than November.

CEA Digital Dialogue logoThat means that along with CEA posts going back to the blog’s debut in March 2008, all of my own work there has gone down the bit bucket. (That’s not the first time this kind of link rot has happened; when Discovery News changed CMSes and redid its design in January, my car2go review somehow vanished; they were able to repost it, but not at the same address.) That’s not what I would have done; it’s also not my server.

You can still find most of my CEA contributions through the Internet Archive, but only if you know the original address of each. So I asked the folks at CEA if they’d mind me reposting some of that stuff here–I had to ask because my contract, like too many freelance arrangements, had a “work for hire” clause assigning copyright to them–and they said that would be fine as long as I noted where and when the work first appeared.

I said “some” and not all because I don’t have the time or motivation to rescue 50-plus contributions, not all of that material retains its relevance, and some of it is, you know, not that good. Four I have in mind: a December 2011 post unpacking the odd ritual of granting exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s anti-circumvention clause, an April 2012 rant about how “digital rights management” restrictions in e-books preserve Amazon’s dominance, a June 2012 confession of how I overestimated the appeal of the DVD recorder, and a July 2012 protest against sacrificing compatibility or connectivity to make phones and laptops fractionally smaller or thinner.

But if there are others you’d like to see restored here, please let me know. To help with that, I’ve gathered a more-or-less complete list after the jump of the posts, podcasts and chats I did for CEA, with Internet Archive links when available.

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Weekly output: phoning it in from cars, begging for DMCA exemptions

I’d mean to have a third post on this list, but my attempt to review Facebook’s new Timeline interface was thwarted by the fact that I still don’t have access to Timeline in my own account. (I’ve asked Facebook PR to look into this.) The switchover of my CEA work from the soon-to-close, subscription-required Tech Enthusiast site to its free Digital Dialogue blog also ate up a decent chunk of time. So there’s just two posts to my name for the week.

12/14/2011, New Rule: No Phone Use Behind The Wheel?, Discovery News

One of the more pleasant surprises of writing for Discovery has been how much I enjoy the challenge of coming up with the featured illustration required by its blogging format. In this case, I first thought I’d take a photo of any old cell phone in front of a car dashboard. Then realized I could have some fun with the concept by instead using the vintage Trimline phone I picked up at a yard sale last year, as you can see in the thumbnail at right.

Oh, right, about the post: This was my first take on the National Transportation Safety Board’s proposed ban on any phone use by drivers. (I plan on revisiting the topic at greater length next week for CEA.) In it, I criticize the proposal for its political implausibility and near-impossible enforcement, then suggest three ways that phone vendors could make in-car use safer. I thought the comments would then light up with denunciations of nanny-state behavior, but about half of them favor the phone prohibition. And then there was one person who decided the real problem on the road is cyclists. I was not amused by that: I’ve clocked about 11,000 miles on my bike since 1998 and I’m a member of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

12/16/2011, DMCA Exemptions: Requesting Permission To Innovate, CEA Digital Dialogue

My first non-paywalled post for CEA covered the kind of out-of-the-headlines tech-policy topic that could be a tough sell at a lot of traffic-driven newsrooms: the current round of requested exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” rules. The whole idea that adding “digital rights management” locks to a copyrighted work deprives a buyer of any right to circumvent that DRM to exercise fair-use rights has always struck me as unfair. I used this post to outline the history of requested exemptions from the DMCA’s anti-circumvention rule, something we’re allowed to ask for every three years; collectively, they do not paint a flattering picture of this law.

Note that CEA’s blog (how happy am I see it’s based on WordPress?) includes a separate feed for my contributions, which I encourage you to subscribe to in the RSS client of your choice. If anybody actually does that anymore…