The great Windows 8 DVD debate

Microsoft recently announced that it will not support DVD playback in Windows 8 right out of the box, sparking some cries from tech enthusiasts that the OS will be crippled in a fundamental way. Is this really a big deal? I think the impact on both casual Windows users and enthusiasts will be minimal. In fact, I think this move is a no-brainer for Microsoft.

First, I should give a little detail into what exactly is going on. In Windows 8, Windows Media Player will no longer play DVDs. Windows Media Center will not be included at all. In order to get DVD playback, one must either play them in some other program like PowerDVD or VLC, or purchase the Windows Media Center pack. Buy that pack and DVDs will play back in Media Center, but still not in Windows Media Player. The Building Windows 8 blog describes how this will work in detail, but that’s the basic gist of it.

It's a matter of money

What it boils down to is this: DVD playback in commercial software (like Windows) costs money. You have to license MPEG-2 and Dolby Digital decoders and keys for the Content Scrambling System (CSS) copy protection on DVDs. It’s tricky to estimate how much this all costs, but Microsoft claims in a FAQ on the matter that it’s hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Add Blu-ray playback, which is increasingly important, and the costs go way up. So including DVD playback in Windows is probably a few bucks for each copy sold, and a few bucks more for Blu-ray.

Microsoft hasn’t yet said how much it’s going to charge for Windows 8, nor for the Media Center upgrade, so speculation about the impact of these costs is premature. The optimist in me hopes it’s a sign that Windows 8 licensing costs will be lower than Windows 7, as it may need to be to compete in the tablet market. Regardless of the cost to Microsoft or passed on to the customers, I don’t think it really matters.

First, realize that the vast majority of Windows owners do not buy an upgrade. Well over 90 percent of Windows copies sold are licensed for inclusion on a new PC, not sold as upgrades to existing PC owners. If you have third-party DVD playback software today, like VLC or PowerDVD, it will likely work with Windows 8 and your upgrade will continue to play DVDs using that software.

The impact is minimal

New PCs, if they have a DVD drive, already ship with some sort of third-party DVD playback software in almost all cases. If it’s got a Blu-ray drive, it always includes playback software, because Windows 7 does not play back Blu-ray discs without it. This means Windows 8 will, for the vast majority of casual users, play back DVDs just as Windows 7 does today. The manufacturer will bundle PowerDVD or something like it, and the user will use that to play movies.

What about enthusiasts, users like me who build their own PCs and buy upgrades to the latest OS? Frankly, I don’t think most of us watch a lot of DVD discs on our PCs. The growth of streaming Web video, and disappearance of optical drives on thin-and-light laptops, makes it clear that playing movies from an optical disc is on the way out. I don’t know any enthusiast who is committed to playing DVD movies in Windows Media Player. They’re either using VLC or some other application, and most of the time they’re invested in Blu-ray (which will need a third-party player in Windows 8 just as it has done in every version of Windows).

The real impact of cutting DVD playback from Windows 8 seems to be a fraction of a fraction of a percent: it’s the small percentage of users who don’t get Windows 8 with a new PC, who won’t use Media Center, who are committed to DVDs instead of Blu-ray, and haven’t just moved on to streaming Web video. That fraction of a fraction of a percent will have to download VLC or something.

I think Microsoft made the right call here. Windows 8 isn’t even out yet, and DVD playback on PCs is already dropping rapidly in favor of online streaming services. The cost of built-in DVD movie playback support completely outweighs the benefits. By the time Windows 8 ships later this year, most users won’t even notice it’s gone.

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