Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stupid box no more

Home entertainment has taken a sudden detour into unknown territory.
I was born in a VCR-less household. And in the ’90s, that was one of the worst things that could happen to you. There was a way to redeem your esteem among peers, though — the video rental. It didn’t mean renting home some VHS cassettes; it meant bringing home the entire rig that went with it. But to rent a VCR or VCP for 24 hours you also had to do some serious number crunching:
24 hours = seven Hindi movies or up to 12 English movies, or a combination of both, with a strong preference for the latter.
Then came a decade when the ritual was repeated with more compact players and CDs. This was followed by the DVD revolution and in a couple of years owning a player became cheaper than watching a movie at a swanky mall. As we started settling down, the cat was back to bother the pigeons: the Blu-ray had arrived. 
Everyone waited for this new, “well-capacitated” technology — a Blu-ray disc stores double of what a regular DVD can — to become affordable and, more importantly, its content to become widely available. It seems like that phase is never going to come. And even if it does, nobody will really care. For home entertainment has taken a detour from what we thought was its path to a logical conclusion.
As Blu-ray got bogged down by a lack of patronage from the big tech companies, especially Apple and to some extent Microsoft, the focus shifted to other options of getting content into your TV. 

Content out of a box
The clear winner now is data downloaded (almost always illegally) from torrents and peer-to-peer data-sharing networks. Those who are into this small-scale piracy prefer to buy large storage devices to stack up on movies which otherwise would have never made it to DVD stores in our country. Gadgets like the Amkette Flash TV let you play multiple formats on your television effortlessly. But this method, despite its popularity, seems unlikely to have a long run, unless companies decide to make their content available online, either for free or by charging a small premium, with stress on “small”.
But then technology has moved on and you can get the internet on your TV now. One way to do it would be by buying an internet-enabled TV. Some models like the VU Intelligent TV, which let you surf the Net on your TV and watch streaming content, have already made it to Indian stores.
The second method is slightly complicated and strictly for geeks, unless you pay someone to set it up for you. In this, you will configure your computer to stream content, either wirelessly or through cable, to your TV. However, the drawback will be that you will need to run to your PC or laptop for the controls.
Direct to Home and Internet Protocol television, both gaining popularity in our country, also let you access a lot of movies and other content on demand. Though with a limited content base, this method is preferred by many as it is the easiest to use. 

Going online
What could be the future for the Indian consumer is already making waves in the US and Canada. Netflix, which made its name and money by home-delivering DVD and Blu-ray discs ordered online, is reinventing itself with video streaming. Its “Watch Instantly” option lets users stream content — with pause and play — to the computer or TV, though only a fraction of Netflix’s huge library is available for streaming now. Moreover, subscribers on monthly packages don’t have to pay an additional fee for watching movies online. Apple too has plunged in with its own version of streaming. 
Now, With Apple TV, Steve Jobs is trying to beat Netflix at its own game. The challenger is a small digital media receiver that can play digital content originating from iTunes Store, Netflix, YouTube, Flickr or MobileMe on a widescreen television via Apple’s patented AirPlay technology. While the device is sold for $99, users have to pay extra for the content they watch.
So, while internet seems to be the new breath of life home entertainment has been gasping for, it won’t be long before the winds of change leave it breathless again.