The Darwinian battle for the next generation of DVDs ended last month, as Toshiba admitted defeat and aborted its HD-DVD format, leaving Blu-ray technology the sole survivor. But few were heard rejoicing, other than a handful of manufacturers and movie studios. In fact, how many of you know—or care—what Blu-ray and HD-DVD are? As of January, a survey commissioned by the Blu-ray Disc Association found that 80 percent of consumers were aware of the new high-definition format, up from just 26 percent at the end of 2006. But apart from my most technophilic friends, colleagues and peers, I rarely hear anyone discussing it. I'm far more likely to hear people talking about renting DVDs from Netflix, downloading movies via iTunes, streaming television shows from network Web sites, watching YouTube clips on their iPhones or acquiring video files through other means of dubious legality.
Though we're quick to forget it, the practice of buying and owning physical copies of movies and TV shows is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the VHS era, several studios initially priced movies high so that we'd opt to rent videocassettes instead. But along came the DVD and, with it, over time, a sea change in consumer behavior. I went from borrowing videotapes from my college library in the early '90s to renting tapes from Blockbuster in the mid-'90s to buying DVDs on a weekly basis. And as DVD prices plummeted, they became the impulse purchase that savvy studio executives had hoped for; in fact, my friends and I bought so many (I'm up to 600 at last count) that by the early '00s, we would joke about how many DVDs we owned that were still sitting in their original shrink-wrap.
What finally broke me of my runaway DVD-purchasing habits was Netflix. Nearly a decade old, the company's subscription-by-mail service was built around the appeal of no longer having to pay the annoying late fees that fattened Blockbuster's coffers. But as a New Yorker living in one of those New York-size apartments, the real appeal was not having to find storage space for more DVDs. Thrilling as it had been to build my own movie vault, I didn't really need all those discs: like most people, I only watched them once or twice (unlike my music CDs, which I listen to constantly). So even though I canceled my Netflix subscription after a couple of years (I was too lazy to mail the discs back so that I could get a new batch), the act of renting DVDs had shifted my perspective enough to finally put an end to my obsessive collecting of them.
The question I'm asking myself now is the same one that many studios and consumer-electronics companies are pondering: with Blu-ray having won the format war, will it replace the DVD? Or will digitally distributed video win out? Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter told me that studios will be loath to forgo the margins of DVD—and even larger profits on Blu-ray—until they can figure out to make as much money from digital distribution. So for the time being, discs are here to stay. And with a 40-inch Bravia TV at my disposal and a stack of Blu-ray movies the studios have sent me, I know how stunning high-def video can look. I still like to collect, to know that I've got a physical copy of something in my possession. But I'm older and wiser now, so I'll only buy a handful of the best TV boxed sets and movies on Blu-ray; for the rest, I'll restart my Netflix subscription to keep the clutter in my apartment to a minimum. For current TV shows, TiVo, iTunes or network Web sites are just fine. And even though I don't yet own an iPhone, I've spent enough time around my Apple-loving friends to see how ideal it is for killing time with those bite-size YouTube clips. I may not be quite ready to let discs go forever, but they no longer define me the way they once did. And I now have room in my apartment for a sofa.