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I regret selling my DVDs

For a fan of specific tastes, the future of digital movies is a mess of a landscape. I dream of a perfect digital future, but why is it still not here yet?

I miss discs. Sometimes.
Sarah Tew/CNET

I used to have hundreds of DVDs. They lined an entire bookshelf. I knew I never watched many of them; besides, the future was digital, wasn't it? It was 2006. My iPod Video told me so.

I sold about half my discs to the departed Kim's Video up the street, and then--pressured a bit by my family needs and small apartment--I did the unthinkable: I tossed out the remaining boxes and stuffed the discs in a binder.

It felt like sacrilege for my treasured and somewhat hard-to-find discs--my Canadian version of Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" with a commentary track, my various out-of-print Criterion movies. I gambled that I'd never really play these discs many more times, what with Netflix instant streaming and iTunes movie rentals.

Mostly, I was right. Then came "Kiki's Delivery Service."

My wife asked me, in a sudden fit of nostalgia, if we could watch the Studio Ghibli movie we both loved. I forgot about it, honestly. I started digging through my binders stuffed inside a storage cube near my sofa, flipping through every dusty disc, and checked three times; I couldn't find it. I must have sold it. OK.

So, I figured, the Future is Digital. I'd just watch it digitally.

This can't replace my DVDs. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Well, you can guess the outcome. It wasn't on Netflix streaming. It wasn't available for rental on Vudu. It's not on iTunes. Even if it had been on one of these services, we'd be talking a rental. If I wanted to pay to own, well, where would I store this file, and how would I play it? On iTunes, I'd have to download that movie and ferry it across to my iPhone or iPad via a sync cable, because iTunes doesn't support redownloading movies. I faced this with "Cars," which I bought so my son could watch it during a flight (our Netbook has no DVD drive, and neither does the iPad). My wife asked, when she was away for a day when I was using the laptop, if she could download it again on her phone. Of course not, I said. I don't own an Apple TV, so playing back that movie in the living room would be a challenge without hooking HDMI cables to my laptop.

Amazon Video-on-Demand? Sure, great selection, and you can rewatch from anywhere...if you have access to the Internet. You can't download all movies, so you're stuck in a cloud locker like Vudu. Hey, my PS Vita has some $5 movies on the PS Store, but they have DRM, too, and I'd need to transfer the movies back and forth to my PlayStation 3.

So, here we get to the obvious conclusion on the state of digital movies: it's a horrible mess.

Ultraviolet is trying to be yet another digital way to get movies bought on DVD and Blu-ray to other devices, but it has its own proprietary apps and access limits, not to mention studio participation. All these sources are separate, fragmented. It's ugly. It's confusing. It's complicated.

That dusty binder of DVDs? It's actually a lot simpler to use.

This can't replace my DVDs. Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

For ease of access, sure, nothing beats a service like Netflix streaming. I've heard plenty of co-workers crow that they can ditch their discs now that Movie X has arrived on Netflix. Sure...for now. When that movie or TV show disappears--as they often do--what then? Where does all this ephemeral digital content go? Where are the archives? Where's the centralization? DVDs go out of print, but at least they play on any DVD drive.

Music has long passed this stage of awkwardness: post-DRM, music is easily found, easily redownloaded, easily managed, although the idea of getting rid of your CDs is still up for heavy debate, since music has such massive replay value. TV is slowly getting there, with tons of back-catalog seasons making their way to Netflix and Hulu Plus, apps like HBO Go acting as archives of a sort (if you have cable), and for-purchase seasons at destinations like iTunes being easily redownloadable, creating a cloud archive.

Movies need to get there soon, and fast. The Oscars might throw around jokes about piracy, but if these various fragmented catalogs and DRMed methods don't come together, and fast, it's either an invite for average users to dig up their old DVD binder, or to throw on an eye patch.

OK, so, maybe I'm overreacting. After all, if I paid for a Netflix disc subscription, I could have a rental fast. Or, I could just go out and scratch that one odd movie itch and buy it again. What I may be suffering from is the Hoarder's Regret: that one odd thing that makes me keep boxes of crap I don't need, in fear of losing easy access to that one movie. And, to be fair, many of my old DVDs suffer from horrible resolution, non-anamorphic treatment, or some other limitation.

I've tried making my video library a digital affair, and it isn't easy. Movies don't want to be digital so far; they want to live in the cloud and be rented to you, or streamed. I don't always agree with that philosophy. Yet, I don't like hoarding boxes of discs, either.

Nevertheless, digital living hasn't made me stop thinking about discs. It's mitigated my need for discs by spoon-feeding me a boatload of content, but for those specific needs and tastes...well, I'm still pissed off that I sold some of my old DVD movies, because I've come to realize that there's no other easy way to get them back again.