2013-02-24

A movie collection in the cloud

The one-two punch of having Netflix and Hulu is how many cord cutters get their TV & movie fix without having to subscribe to an expensive cable or satellite TV package. The one thing that neither Netflix nor Hulu have however is a way to watch the latest movies. Many of the cable and satellite companies offer a selection of pay-per-view (PPV) movies at prices roughly comparable to what the neighbourhood movie rental store charges, assuming your neighbourhood even has a movie store these days.

For those who prefer to buy rather than rent, or those who want to be able to view some of the titles they've already paid for on a variety of devices like tablets and smartphones, Hollywood sure doesn't make it easy on you.

Read on to find out how the ownership landscape for movies is finally moving into the 21st century.


Digital media ownership


If you don't have cable or satellite, you can still watch new releases via a number of streaming services that have similar selection and pricing to other PPV options. Movie rental prices range from 99 cents for older titles to around $6 in order to stream the latest blockbuster in HD quality. That's fine if you want to rent movies, but what are your options if you prefer to buy the movies you really like and expect to view more than once? BluRay discs and DVDs are fine if you have a player attached to the TV where you want to view the movie, but they don't help you if you have a dedicated streaming device like a Roku or WD TV that can't play physical discs. If your main streaming device is an XBox360 you've probably been frustrated that it can't play BluRay discs, so your only option for viewing content in high-def is to stream it or download it.

There are lots of services out there that will rent or sell you digital titles. Apple users have iTunes, XBox users have the XBox Video Store, PlayStation users have the PlayStation store, and there are services like Flixster, Cineplex, and Cinema Now that work on a variety of platforms. If you're in the US or use a service like Unblock-US to access foreign services you have a few more options, the biggest and best of which is probably the Wal*Mart owned VUDU. The problem that a lot of people, me included, have with most of these services is that any content you buy from them only works with their service, and therefore only with the devices that they support. If you buy a movie or TV show from iTunes, good luck getting it to play on a non-Apple device. Ditto for purchases from the XBox and PlayStation stores. Services that aren't associated with a hardware vendor have slightly broader device support, but if you look into them you'll find that hardly any of them work on all of the devices where you someday might want to access that content: iPhone/iPads, Android devices, gaming consoles, dedicated streaming players, or even smart TVs or BluRay players.

You can't really fault the digital video stores; their hands have been tied firmly behind their backs by Hollywood. In order to get access to content from the studios, the digital stores must implement strict digital rights management controls that prevents playback of the content on unauthorized devices or by unauthorized users. When you combine that with the fact that hardware vendors have no interest in making their playback software work on other platforms, you get single vendor lock-in. You've got to give Hollywood credit - they've pretty much mastered the art of getting us to pay for the same thing many many times. A lot of people will pay to watch a popular movie at least three times: once in the theatre, once more a year or two later as a rental or PPV, and then a third time a few years down the road on something like The Movie Network, Netflix, or even network television. I can count at least 5 or 6 titles that I've bought several times over as technology improved or as "special edition" releases came out. I've even owned 3 or 4 titles in VHS, DVD, and BluRay format, with a couple of those jumping from BluRay into the digital ownership world. Yeah, I'm a sucker for Hollywood's shenanigans, but when I really like a movie, I tend to watch it many many times.


UltraViolet: the answer?


Due to all of the limitations I outlined above, I've never been able to bring myself to pay $15-20 to buy the digital rights to a movie or a season of a TV show. I've streamed several as 24 or 48 hour rentals, but if there was a movie I wanted to own, in recent years I've bought the BluRay version. I can finally say that the situation has changed, and I think the industry has found a way to solve the one vendor content lock-in issue. It's a bit too early to say with absolute certainty that it's a winning platform, but it has all of the right things going for it. I'm talking about UltraViolet - a digital rights storage platform run by a consortium that currently has 74 members, including most of the big Hollywood studios, streaming services, and retailers.

UltraViolet (UV) is not a place where you buy, rent, or even store movies and TV shows; in fact, if you use UltraViolet you'll have relatively little interaction with it. The best way to think of it is probably like a credit bureau. UV records what you own, and vendors can ask UV if you have the right to certain digital content. When you buy something from a service that supports UV, the service will tell UV that you purchased a specific item and it will be added to your collection. Your UV collection is valid forever and can even be shared with up to 5 other family members.

UltraViolet has the potential to allow you to access content you've paid for on any device, any time you want. What's the catch? Well, for one, you need to ensure that content you buy makes its way into your UV collection, and you need to use a streaming or download service that supports UV and links to your UV account. In Canada our choices are currently limited to Cineplex and Flixster, but you can expect that to change - don't be surprised if you hear about support from a lot more vendors over the course of 2013. Best Buy's Cinema Now service in the US ties into UltraViolet, but it doesn't do the same in Canada yet.

If you're in the US or have other ways to access VUDU  it might be the best UltraViolet service out there right now. That's no coincidence - VUDU was one of the earliest supporters of UV so they've had a head start on the other streaming services in that regard. VUDU also has the broadest device support I've seen and one of the biggest content catalogs. Most of their content is connected to UltraViolet, but unfortunately for consumers, not quite everything ties in. There's nothing that VUDU or any other service can do about titles from studios that haven't joined the UltraViolet consortium. Disney is the big exception in that regard, and given the content they control, it's a pretty big exception. Still, if you're going to buy a digital copy of the latest James Bond flick, you might as well seek out a service that ties into UV so that you won't have to worry about that service being around a few years from now. Ten years ago, how many of us thought Blockbuster would be in trouble by 2009 and bankrupt by 2010?

Getting credit for your existing collection


Getting started with UltraViolet is a matter of heading to http://www.uvvu.com/ and signing up for a free account. That gives you an empty digital collection which isn't anything to write home about, but you need to create an UltraViolet account at some point because you'll be giving your UV account information to VUDU, Cinema Now, Cineplex, or whatever UV-enabled service you use to buy movies and TV shows. The services that support UV give you a way to link your account with them to your UV account. Once linked, any UV content you buy shows up on any service you use that links to your same UV account. If you buy a UV movie from Flixster, you can use VUDU to stream it to your PS3 or Roku for example.

That's great and it takes the fear out of buying digital-only copies, but things get interesting when you add the fact that some UltraViolet vendors give you a way to turn your existing DVD or BluRay discs into a digital copy of the same title. This could mean that I won't buy Back to the Future for a fifth time! I bought it as VHS, the VHS box set, the DVD special edition box set (I have the copy with the widescreen framing errors), and the BluRay 25th anniversary edition box set. Well, maybe if the 30th or 35th anniversary edition comes with "new behind the scenes footage" and a free flux capacitor...

For US customers, VUDU has provided a way of converting physical DVDs into digital copies for a while - they call it "Disc to Digital". You walk into your local Wal*Mart (remember, that's who owns VUDU) with a stack of DVDs and your VUDU account info. A clerk in the Wal*Mart photo centre verifies each DVD, stamps it (so that it can't be used that way again), collects $2 per disc from you, and updates your VUDU/UV account to indicate that you now own the digital copy.

Just recently, VUDU (along with CinemaNow in the US and Flixster in the UK) have introduced a way for you to do this without leaving the comfort of your home. VUDU calls theirs "In Home Disc to Digital" and it's currently in beta: http://www.vudu.com/in_home_disc_to_digital.html. You download their software (Windows-only at the moment), give it your VUDU account information, then insert a DVD into your computer's DVD player. The program examines the DVD, looks it up to make sure it's a movie that is supported by VUDU, and if so, it gives you the option of paying $2 to get the standard-def digital rights to the movie or $5 to get the high-def rights. If you have a BluRay player on your computer, you can do the same with BluRay discs and get the HD rights for $2.

Here's how it looks:


Once you insert a disc, it scans it, does a lookup, and then shows you a screen like this:


You keep feeding in discs, picking SD or HD for each, and then eventually you go to their checkout area where you confirm the details and they bill the credit card on file with your VUDU account. Some titles are only available in SD, and for those from studios that don't support UltraViolet the program will simply tell you that the title isn't available in digital format at this time.

It's not perfect, but it's a nice way to convert some of your favourite DVDs into a digital copy that will stay with you forever and can be watched on all of your devices. For now, this is working for Canadians using VUDU via Unblock-US, but I'm hopeful that it won't be long before UltraViolet has widespread support here too, and if we're really lucky, VUDU might follow Netflix and make their service available north of the border. I've tried this with about 20 discs so far and they show up on both my VUDU and Flixster accounts, giving me easy playback on my Android tablet and phone, my PS3 and Roku streaming devices, and even my Vizio and Samsung smart TVs.

I expect UltraViolet to eventually catch on and change the public's view of digital movie / TV show ownership. iTunes came along and turned the music industry around and made buying MP3s commonplace. It's just a matter of time before the same thing happens to video content.
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