ONE day, when my children are a little older, I will gather them close and I will tell them about how I lived through the Great Format Wars.
I will recount to them a seemingly endless cycle of battles. From LP to cassette to minidisk (oh wait — not to minidisk) to CD. From Betamax to VHS to DVD to HD-DVD to Blu-ray. From punchcards to magnetic tape to floppy disks to zip drives to DVD-ROMs.
Some were dirty little skirmishes, like the Eight-Track Incursion of the late 1960s. But, oh, there are epic tales to be told as well: How my children’s hearts will leap and dive (assuming they are not the kind to be bored to distraction by what Dad is droning on about) as they hear about VHS and Betamax, each bringing the other ever closer to oblivion, and how only one of them left the battlefield — only to fall victim to a far nimbler opponent, DVD, which was waiting in the wings.
And my children will hear of this and be amazed (see assumption above), for they know nothing of this kind of conflict. They will grow up in a world where physical storage of information is as outdated as rotary-dial telephones and mimeograph machines are now.
Indeed, they already live in that world, even if vestiges of the old remain (turntables, for example). We older people can enjoy this new world as well, what with streaming music and video services, cloud-based storage options and social networks that easily absorb our photos and ephemera. We may be hardened by battles past, but our future is digital, wireless, ubiquitous and, we hope, pacific. Here’s what it looks like.
It was not that long ago that a home-stereo system was a black-and-brown tower of components: an amplifier, a receiver, a cassette deck, a CD player, a phonograph, perhaps an equalizer.
All that can be cast aside. Our music is now stored digitally on a computer, or sent over the Internet from a streaming service like Spotify or Pandora. To hear it in the home, all that’s required is a speaker to receive the necessary data. One of the simplest ways to do this is with a wireless speaker that uses Bluetooth wireless technology to connect to a smartphone or computer.
The two big players in this area are Bose, with its SoundLink speaker ($300), and Jawbone, with its Jambox ($200) and Big Jambox ($300) speakers. The products vary in size and shape and have different secondary features, but their primary function is the same: to take the music that is on a computer or phone and, wirelessly, play it in a room.
All three models are powered by a rechargeable battery (the Bose lasts eight hours on a charge; the Big Jambox lasts 15), so you can move them in and out of the house. Because many people store music on their phones or use it to pull in music from a streaming site, the smartphone becomes both the source and the remote control for the speaker.
If a listener wants a more sophisticated package, there is also Sonos, which makes small ($300) and large ($400) indoor speakers that work on a proprietary network. When multiple speakers are set up around a house, music can be sent to all of them simultaneously, or different tracks can be sent to different rooms. Controlling the speakers can be done from a computer or via a smartphone app that works with your existing music library as well as Internet-based services.
TV and Movies
The VCR gave way to the DVD player, which then begot the Blu-ray DVD player, but the next device we use to watch movies will not have any disc or cartridge at all. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video are able to send shows and movies to televisions directly, and online stores like Apple’s iTunes Store can allow users to download videos to their devices for offline viewing.
To get this content onto a television, you need either a new TV — which will probably have the ability to get on a Wi-Fi network, so it can access the Internet and reach streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu directly — or an accessory that allows your current television to do the same thing.
If the latter is the case, then you may want to consider a Roku box (starting at $50) or an Apple TV ($99). Both will allow you to get online and stream content. Roku has deals with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu Plus. Apple’s box will connect you to Netflix and will also gain you access to its iTunes store.
If you’re a user of other Apple products, Apple TV will let you view your pictures in iPhoto on your television; it can also work with iPhones and iPads, so your TV can “mirror” what’s being shown on the tablet’s screen. If you’re playing a game on the iPad, the tablet can become the controller while your TV can become the larger display.
Another way to view movies on demand is through gaming consoles. Microsoft’s Xbox (starting at $200) has its own online-video service, and in some areas, can even pull in a limited number of cable channels, supplanting not only a DVD player, but a cable box as well. Sony’s PlayStation 3 ($250) and Nintendo’s Wii ($150) gaming consoles also have the ability to pull in streaming video from popular services.
Early computer users may remember that the storage medium of choice in the early 1980s was a cassette of magnetic tape. This then gave way to the 5 1/4-inch floppy, which in turn evolved into the 3 1/2-inch floppy (this time protected by a hard plastic case), only to be overtaken by the CD-ROM, which morphed into the DVD.
But the latest portable computers forgo any removable storage media whatsoever. In an era when documents can be stored on Google Docs, photos on Facebook and other files on cloud services like Dropbox, the need for a disk of any type is rapidly approaching zero. Why carry around extra equipment that you don’t really need all the time?
Apple was the first popular computer maker to ditch a disk drive (in much the same way the company omitted the still-popular 3 1/2-inch drive from the first iMac, favoring a CD-ROM drive). Its line of MacBook Air laptops, which come in either an 11-inch version (starting at $999) or a 13-inch one (starting at $1,300), contain an internal, solid-state drive for storage and a couple of USB ports that can be used with flash (or thumb) drives if necessary.
Other computer makers have followed suit. A new line of “ultrabooks” from various brands define themselves in a couple of ways: they are extremely thin, they don’t weigh as much as other laptops and they can run four to six hours between charges.
Models include the U300S from Lenovo ($999), Asus’s UX21A (price not yet announced) and Samsung’s Series 5 Ultrabook ($800). Like the MacBook Air, these devices realize these goals by doing away with a disk drive — it adds bulk, it adds weight and spinning a mirrored circle around and around at high speed consumes a lot of power. Lose the drive, and you gain a lot more in portability and usability.
So no more black boxes stacked in the living room if you want to listen to music. No more black boxes stacked near the TV if you want to watch a movie. No more bulky laptops with increasingly unnecessary components.
Perhaps in my children’s lifetime, all these products will be reduced to their most elemental forms: a simple glass display to see things, with some small speakers to hear things. The future of media and tech devices is not how many things can be packed into a given size, but how much can be left out.