Fast Burn

Why recordable DVDs won’t last.

If you dared to enter an electronics store during the past holiday season, you were likely pitched on the coming ubiquity of DVD burners. The next must-have for your PC, the salesman may have insisted while nudging you toward a display stocked with sub-$300 models. Yet that Sony DRU-500A that Santa left under the tree is more laserdisc than compact disc, as the Golden Age of home-burned DVDs will be rather fleeting. The self-pressed DVD’s heyday won’t be as brief as the flagging MiniDisc’s, perhaps, but it won’t last as long as the floppy diskette did, either.

You remember the floppy: At its evolutionary apex, the floppy consisted of 13-plus square inches of plastic capable of holding a then-whopping 1.44 megabytes of data. For nearly 20 years, the floppy was the reigning king of computer-to-computer transfers. Numerous cinematic thrillers centered on the theft, sale, or pursuit of data encoded on floppies. (See: Eraser, The Net, Assassins.) But nowadays, few new machines come equipped with internal floppy drives.

What killed the floppy disk? File sizes outgrew its storage limit—1.44 megs isn’t enough to hold even a single MP3—but the Internet was the true culprit. Everyone figured out it was quicker and easier to e-mail documentsand other filesfrom their office PC to their home machine. It takes, what, 20 seconds to compose and send an e-mail with an attached file? There’s no reason to bother with buying, formatting, and schlepping portable disks, which are easy to break and even easier to lose. Some people burn CDs of their data to transport from place to place, but for anything under 2 or 3 megs, it’s not worth the hassle. Just e-mail that sucker instead.

The Internet will prove to be the technological nail that seals the homemade DVD’s coffin, too. The conventional wisdom has been that recordable DVDs would replace the VHS cassette as the media of choice for archiving TV shows and movies. But that vision seems pretty shortsighted. The more logical next step is for digital videorecorders to be networked to the family PC. TiVo is already taking a step in this direction: At the annual Consumer Electronics Show a few weeks back, the company announced a $99 software upgrade that lets subscribers pull photos and music off their PC and onto their television, as well as transfer video from one DVR unit to another (provided they’re registered to the same user). Thus begins the inexorable march toward allowing users to transfer TV recordings to their PC and vice versa. (Some hackers have already figured out how to do this, but Joe Six-Pack’s understandably reluctant to crack open the top of his DVR and poke around the circuit boards.) Soon enough there won’t be a need to burn a DVD of cousin Moira’s wedding—or those Simpsons episodes you swiped off LimeWire. A direct connection between PC and DVR will eliminate the hard-media middleman.

The technology’s not quite there yet, but you can already glimpse it galloping in from the horizon. Think of the way that music CDs are creeping toward extinction due in large part to MP3 players, especially 20-gigabyte monsters such as the top-of-the-line iPod. Once a freshly purchased CD has been ripped to a PC’s hard drive, and then FireWire d to the iPod, there is little reason to ever see the CD again. That 4,000-song iPod can be jacked into a home stereo, a car radio, a boombox—anything capable of hosting a simple Y-cable. All of which means sayonara to burning 15- to 20-song CDs into the wee hours.  

The arrival of a video-capable iPod equivalent, portended by such forerunners as Archos Technology’s multimedia jukeboxes and the Deltron Cinema Disk, is inevitable.And wireless will be the DVD burner’s real death knell, as houses outfitted with 802.11a connections will be drenched in 54-mbps bandwidth. Again, music provides the harbinger, as products like Audiotron can wirelessly beam MP3s from your PC’s hard drive to your stereo. It won’t be terribly long until you’ll do the same with your Simpsons collection.

Don’t worry if that Best Buy hawker convinced you to invest in a DVD burner—or, for that matter, a DVD recorder for your TV. The self-burned DVD still has a few years of glory left, and they’re perfect for backing up the files on your computer. But if you’re on a tight budget, and all you really want to do is swap video files with your friends, keep in mind that you likely won’t need a DVD burner to share 2005’s Man vs. Beast IV: Final Confrontation.