In The Inmates Are Running The Asylum, Alan Cooper argues that embedding a computer into existing technology does not produce enhanced alarm clocks, cameras or cars, it produces a computer. Cooper’s point is that embedded computers often make their presence felt too strongly in the user interfaces required to operate the new functions brought by those computers. I would add blu-ray players to Cooper’s list. Why? Because blu-ray players act more like computers than DVD players.
The first reason blu-ray players act like computers is they boot-up just like computers. When you insert a blu-ray disc into your player, the player loads a Java program on the disc into the player’s embedded Java system. The next time you watch a blu-ray, look out for the animated logo or some other artwork from the movie. While it’s spinning, changing colour or transforming in some other way, the logo or artwork keeps you occupied while the disc is booting. I’ve written previously about the slow boot times of computers; having to wait for a movie to boot just adds insult to injury.
The second reason blu-ray players act like computers is that simple interactions become complicated. For example, DVD works just like VHS in one important way: stop and resume. When you stop a DVD and later press the play button, the DVD resumes at the same point, just like VHS. Blu-ray fails to get this simple interaction right. Because the disc’s Java program controls the blu-ray player, the blu-ray disc’s authors have to implement stop and resume. That’s crazy. Most blu-rays that I’ve watched don’t have stop and resume. Pressing stop (sometimes accidentally) means having to start right from the beginning.
The third reason blu-ray players act like computers is their internet connectivity. Internet connectivity is an unstoppable trend in all sorts of devices. And that’s a good thing because devices become more useful when connected. Pulling content from the internet adds value to a device and can increase its lifespan with firmware and other updates. However, although internet-capable blu-ray players have an ethernet port, most aren’t wireless. Unless you have a router near your blu-ray player, the only way to connect the player to the router is with a long ethernet cable, which is untidy and often impractical. All internet-capable devices should be wireless to increase usability. Not that wi-fi is always easy to set up and use, but things are improving.
I love the high-definition blu-ray picture. But the interactivity, networking and everything else that goes with blu-ray is a usability disaster. Of course, DVD isn’t perfect either: DVD menus can be difficult to use when not thought out properly (what isn’t?) and I’ve written previously about the lack of usability of DVD subtitle menus. But I do prefer the relative simplicity and disc independence of DVD: insert any DVD disc into any DVD player and it just works (assuming the DVD player designers and DVD disc authors stick to the published DVD standards). If only blu-ray was DVD with high-definition picture quality…