Category Archives: Article

Yo ho, yo ho, a (video) pirate’s life for me…

The following is a reprint of an article I originally wrote around November 11, 2002 at 4:17:20 a.m. CST. Apparently.

From: Allen Huffman

Date: November 11, 2002 4:17:20 AM CST

Subject: Yo ho, yo ho, a (video) pirate’s life for me…

The 1990s.  You remember them, don’t you?  It was a time of amazing things such as the mainstream birth of “alternative” music. Records were being phased out with CDs in long boxes taking over. You remember long boxes, don’t you?  Blockbuster Video was gearing up to be the first movie rental store that would never be missing a title you wanted thanks to VideoCDs.  You remember VideoCDs, don’t you?

Ah yes, VideoCDs. If you are in Asia, you probably know exactly what a VideoCD is.  You may even have a collection of all the latest blockbuster movies in this format. But if you live in America, you may have only heard of VCDs from spam junk mail offering software to let you copy any DVD down to a CD.  A movie on a CD?  It’s true, honest, even if the spam offer isn’t.  Thanks to video piracy, a whole new generation is discovering the video format that could have (and probably should have) changed the way we watch movies.

Imagine this.  It’s the 1990s, and LPs have given way to a new digital format for audio: the CD.  A tiny disc is capable of storing an hour or more of excellent quality audio without any scratches, pops, wow or flutter. Die hard audio enthusiasts are about the only people not embracing this new format. Soon the expression “you sound like a broken record” is meaningless to an entire generation raised on digital audio.  Soon this technology was being applied to computers, allowing you to store entire encyclopedias on one disc!  Amazing. And, of course, we understood this was a read only format.  Writing your own CD was total fantasy. And besides, who in the world had 600 megabytes of stuff to store on one? Hard drives weren’t even that big yet!

Speaking of… Early multimedia computers were hardly impressive. One early attempt to bring multimedia to the masses was a machine made by Phillips called CD-i which stood for Compact Disc Interactive. Just as the audio CD had a standard (“red book”), so did CD-i.  The goal was to create a line of players that allowed you to insert a disc that contained multimedia — without needing a computer. The CD-i player shipped with an encyclopedia, and many games were available.  A player was about $1000 at first, and that still made it far cheaper than a home computer with CD multimedia support.  Sadly, CD-i never took off.  No one wanted a stand alone box to play games on CDs with. Imagine that.

Anyway, one of the CD-i standards is still found today — the Kodak Picture CD (back then under a slightly different name).  You could take a roll of film in for developing and get back a CD containing high resolution scans of your pictures. Over a decade later, this idea is actually starting to take off even though low cost digital cameras and scanners have greatly reduced market potential. But Picture CD not the important format — the important one was VideoCD: the VHS killer.

VideoCD would require a special hardware cartridge to be plugged in to the CD-i player.  This hardware allowed you to play up to 70 minutes of VHS-quality video from a standard CD.  (The cartridge handled something known as MPEG-1 video. Today almost everyone has heard of MPEG formats such as MP3s as well as DVD which uses MPEG-2.)  In a way, VideoCD is the father of DVD.  The DVD disc you see today has over 4 gigabytes of MPEG-2 video, while a VideoCD movie usually shipped on two discs with each holding up to 70 minutes of MPEG-1. But I digress.

A small selection of movies was available in VideoCD format in America.  Even as recently as 1996 you could still buy movies on VideoCD at Best Buy (as well as CD-i titles) but today the format is almost completely forgotten in America.  Why?  Because the thought of playing a movie on a CD was just silly.  Who wants that?  Ironically, a decade later a much more expensive technology (with “much better” rather than just “same or better” quality as VHS) did win the hearts of millions as DVDs became the fastest growing standard ever.  (Happy 5th birthday, DVD format!)

So was VideoCD just too early?  I think so.  Why did you mention Blockbuster at the start of this musing?  I was just about to get to that. Here is the part that makes me sad, folks. We lost out, big time, by VCD not taking off in America.  If consumers had embraced the format, we could have seen dedicated VCD players in the sub-$100 format long before low grade VCRs (with many more moving parts) ever made it there. Movies would have had instant access like an audio CD, and would never degrade.  And, here’s the fun part, companies like Blockbuster were talking about adding a satellite receiver to let them download and write (today we call it “burning”) your favorite movie to a VideoCD so you could rent any title you want. (Note: Later Blockbuster did experiment with making rental video games on programmable cartridges available this way.)

Long before the thought of high speed broadband internet access (and downloading illegal copies of the latest theatrical release) was even imagined, the rental industry had already found a way to embrace a new technology and make money off of it.  It was perfect.  Better than VHS quality, never needed cleaning, cheaper players (eventually) and movies that would cost less to produce than VHS (just look at the price of a blank CD today versus even the cheapest blank video tapes).  A missed opportunity.

So here I sit, wading through tons of junk mail and always finding an offer to “copy any DVD to CD” somewhere in the stack. The pirates have discovered a way to use something everyone else has forgotten. It seems it always works this way. After all, it was the pornography industry that had the most to do with the success of VHS in the first place, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

The next time you sit down to enjoy the latest blockbuster movie on DVD, pause for a moment as you realize you could have been doing this a decade ago. The next time you go to rent your favorite title and it’s out of stock, think about the video store that could have been if only CD writers had existed and pirates were making use of the them to make the format popular…

Speaking of popular, you realize that CDs are now older than most cars, right? Twenty years is a very long time for any technology, so soon, when talking about how you used to rip tunes from CD, you may find yourself asking:

“You remember CDs, don’t you?”