The technology of video recording is not very old, so a look at the history of audio recording may help us to predict the life span of the DVD medium. Edison invented the cylinder phonograph in 1877. In spite of having a limited recording capacity of two minutes, cylinders sold briskly and eventually peaked in popularity around 1905. The next evolutionary step was the disc Victrolas. By 1915, 37 years after the birth of the cylinder the 78 rpm record, with about 3 minutes of recording time per side, dominated the market. It was 18 years before the 78 gave way to the 33 1/3 rpm LP, with potential playing times of about 30 minutes per side. Philips introduced the Compact Cassette in 1962, 30 years after the LP. Most of you remember the launch of the Compact Disc (CD) in 1983, which was 20 years after the cassette. In evaluating this brief history of audio recording, we can see that the average life span of an audio recording medium is about 26 years.

The DVD came out in 1997 and if it lasts 26 years, some new medium will replace it in 2023. But it is already looking like DVD may not be around that long. For example, there are nearly a dozen solid-state flash memory formats. Now that their capacities are reaching the GB phase, video is a definite possibility. Of course gigabyte flash memory cards are still quite expensive, relative to the DVD, so it is unlikely that we will distribute video on this format for $20 anytime soon. Maybe we could rent movies on reusable cards some day.

That idea may be dead in the water, however, considering you can download movies over a broadband connection today. The speeds aren’t quite there for full-length movies and most people reasonably don’t want to watch movies on their computers, but it is just fine for audio. More than that, electronic distribution of digital audio over the Internet has seriously cut into the sale of CDs. And that’s not just from piracy: the success of iTunes and other online retailers proves that people are willing, nay eager, to pay for downloading music. And there are even services you can subscribe to for a monthly fee (about $10) that will let you listen to any song you want, in a high quality format, at the click of a mouse. Why do you need to even own a copy of a song, whether on a disc or on your hard drive, if you can listen to anything you want, any time you want? When we’re jogging, driving or otherwise not connected to the Internet, we’ll need a different media of course, but that is just a technical issue.

Technology is changing at a break-neck pace. I don’t think that DVD is going to evaporate completely, anymore than I think CDs are doomed. There are still hundreds of millions of disc players in homes and cars around the nation. Still, after considering the history of audio, somehow, I can’t imagine that we’ll stay with the DVD for too much longer. We may be at the end of the period where any one physical medium dominates the market.

Matthew York is Videomaker‘s Publisher/Editor.

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