According to futurists and technophiles, one day all our entertainment will be delivered digitally. Physical media will cease to exist as a concept, saving us all space. To hear some tell it, this day is fast approaching, or even has already come. The first e-reader debuted in 1992, and today, just a mere two decades later, they’ve made such inroads that a poorly-managed chain of bookstores can go out of business. Sarcasm aside, there’s a definite trend toward the digital in today’s media. While it may have taken e-books a few tries, they do seem to finally be gaining traction. Music is transforming even more quickly, as the MP3 player made digital transfers the relative norm. And now the studios and distributors are trying to push digital delivery for movies.
To a certain extent, it makes sense. After all, DVDs and Blu-Ray, just like CDs, are essentially just physical delivery devices for digital content anyway. Why not just distribute the movie digitally? The data is the same regardless, why mess with the plastic? The day when all our movie collections exist only as an abstract collection of ones and zeroes is probably bound to happen eventually. I’m a web developer by trade, and many of my peers are avid technophiles; I, however, tend to be something of a Luddite by comparison. I’m seldom an early adopter of new technology. In my eyes, “obsolete” isn’t an appropriate term just because there’s something newer; that something newer has to be superior in every meaningful way. The floppy drive wasn’t obsolete when the CD drive came out; it was obsolete only once the CD burner was out and was as cheap to purchase and use.
The day when digital delivery renders DVDs and Blu-Ray obsolete is not yet here.
Even putting aside the number of movie fans who enjoy having a physical collection (to paraphrase Zappa, “people like to own stuff”), a transition to digital delivery isn’t going to happen without some resistance. If you’ve ever read my tech reviews here, then you know I’ve dabbled in digital delivery a few times. This isn’t from being a technophile, it’s from being a mooch. I see something offered for free, and I take it. It’s an opportunistic grab for entertainment, but it has put me in a position where I’ve experienced several different takes digital delivery. Amazon Unbox, CinemaNow, Flixster, and VUDU… four different systems, some with the shared backbone of UltraViolet. They have their good points. They also have their weaknesses. And based on my experiences, if digital delivery is ever to supplant physical media for movies, there’s a long laundry list of things that need to be addressed first.
Universal High-Speed Bandwidth
The first issue is one of pure practicality. Digital delivery requires that the movie be delivered over the internet. It is perhaps obvious, even redundant, to say so… but distributors don’t always seem aware of the ramifications of this. A 2012 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development put the United States at #14 for high bandwidth penetration — with 68% of households having access to broadband internet. Or, to put it another way, one out of three U.S. households don’t have access. A 2011 study put the average download speed in the U.S. at 4.9 Megabits/second. For point of reference, Bulgaria was at 12.9 and South Korea at 17.6. Me, I’m at the low-end, out in the sticks with a DSL connection. I get 1.5 Mbps on a good day; CenturyLink doesn’t even offer a higher speed where I’m at. (Yes, I’m looking into cable.) When I download these digital movies — standard definition, mind you, not even high def — it can take around four hours per movie. In that time, I can drive into town, rent something from Blockbuster or Redbox, drive home, watch it, drive back and drop it off, and drive back home again… and that digital movie still won’t be finished downloading. Now sure, as I said, I’m on the low-end… but look at that average. It’s not really a lot more. Someone getting 4.9 Mbps is still looking at an hour and 15 minutes or so. This is OK if you’re streaming a 480p film (or 360p as I usually have to settle for) but only if nothing causes a momentary drop in speed, which will result in buffering or signal degradation depending on the algorithm used (generally the former, but Amazon Instant Video appears to use the latter). And if you’re looking to download and then play something — whether renting or purchasing — an hour is a long time to wait. Cable and fiber-optic are providing better options for people — 15 Mbps would probably suit me just fine — but they aren’t available everywhere yet. They’re great if you have them, but the industry can’t assume everybody has high bandwidth connections when, statistically speaking, they probably don’t.
This isn’t as big a concern, but it could potentially still rear its ugly head. If you have DSL or cable, chances are you have a bandwidth cap: a limit on the amount of data you can download in a single month. For CenturyLink, it appears to be 150 GB for DSL users at or under 1.5 Mbps, and 250 for those over that speed. For Comcast, it’s 300 GB at their lowest tier. FiOS appears to not have a cap. If you exceed the cap, your download speeds may be reduced, or you may even find your connection shut off temporarily — or find your bill unexpectedly enlarged. Now, it’s unlikely, I think, that you’ll be hitting this on movies alone. The average UltraViolet standard-definition movie appears to be about 1.6 GB (for a 2-hour film). I looked up the file size for HD UltraViolet movies, and discussion on a VUDU forum confirms that the sizes are about 4 GB for a 2-hour HD film and 8 GB for a 2-hour HDX film. So if you were to download an HDX film every day — you do want the best, don’t you? — you could be getting close to 250 GB just on the movies alone. Granted, you probably don’t download a movie every day — even us crazy movie bloggers don’t all do that — but even at every other day, even just standard-definition movies, factoring in all the other internet usage, those caps start to look uncomfortably low. I see phone companies starting to compete with each other by touting that they don’t cap or throttle data usage… that’s just for phones. Why should a cap ever be a concern for regular internet usage?
I can’t evaluate the set-top boxes for VUDU, Rovio, and the other UltraViolet players. I hope they work better than the desktop software does. Because right now, after having tried three different UltraViolet desktop applications, the only one that has appeared to be ready for release was VUDU To Go. Flixster was buggy and gave me alleged license errors on some of my films. The CinemaNow player (which is Rovi underneath) recently added UltraViolet capability in addition to its original proprietary format… or at least it supposedly added UltraViolet capability. My experience indicates it’s not even ready to be called a beta. Oh, it was great for the proprietary format, but despite downloading the UltraViolet movies, it doesn’t want to play them. It just says “error” where it should say “Start Watching”; doesn’t matter where I got the UV movie either. I tried contacting CinemaNow’s tech support, but after being told to re-download the files, and to unlink my UV account, relink it, and re-download the files again, I get the same result. As the files download, and can even be played during download (other than the obvious buffering problems I have), and only are unplayable in the CinemaNow player once download is finished, I presume it’s a bug in the player that will hopefully be fixed at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Bugs are a fact of life with software, but major bugs are unacceptable in a released product. The average Joe isn’t going to have the knowledge or patience to deal with this. If distributors want people to adopt UltraViolet digital movies as the wave of the future, then this stuff needs to just work. First time. Every time.
Universal Format, Universal Locker
One of the hold-ups for every revolution in home video has been the format wars. Betamax fought VHS and lost. LaserDisc fought SelectaVision VideoDiscs, and both failed. DVD beat out DivX. Blu-Ray beat out HD-DVD. But in every case, the format war slowed down adoption of the winning format. Digital delivery is no exception; CinemaNow started with its own format, Amazon Unbox has its own, and UltraViolet is being pushed as the studio favorite. With CinemaNow finally (trying to) move to UltraViolet, it seems plausible it’s the format winner, assuming Amazon ever caves. One would think that UltraViolet becoming the de-facto standard would mean an end to format issues… but I have found this is not the case.
As noted above, I’ve tried three different UltraViolet applications. Curious thing: each stores the files in a different format. Flixster can’t play VUDU’s files, which can’t play CinemaNow’s (although, interestingly, Windows Media Player can, as CinemaNow downloads it as a WMV.) If I want to use a particular application, I have to download it using that application. Compare this to, well, any other type of file you will ever use. If I download an image, I can open it with any image editor (OK, I am aware this doesn’t apply to proprietary formats but those are strictly for editing; I’m just talking viewing). I don’t need to re-download every MP3 I have if I change MP3 players, and I shouldn’t have to when it comes to my movies. Each player should access the same “digital locker” online, should download the files in the same format, and should be able to store and access them in the same location on my computer. If I download a file through VUDU, I should be able to watch it in Flixster. Anything else is not only an aberration from normal software operating procedures, it’s an undue burden should I decide to find a better application.
This seems like an obvious one. If I’ve got the right to watch a film… I should have the right to watch it. Right? And yet, I have to bring it up. I was given a copy of Lethal Weapon: the Director’s Cut by VUDU. When I view my collection on Flixster’s website, it says that licensing issues prevent them from being able to let me download or watch it. It doesn’t even show up when I look at my collection through CinemaNow’s website. Some of the movies I’ve been given through Flixster — some, but not all — don’t show up in my collection when I’m using VUDU. I contacted Flixster, they sent me to WB, and WB said they were only authorized to be viewed on Flixster. But they show up fine in CinemaNow; if it weren’t for its playback bug, I could watch them there (and plan on watching them on a WMV player just out of spite, since I can.) Clearly the WB representative was mistaken, or there’s some other wrinkle going on here.
But mistake or wrinkle, the whole situation is wrong. The entire purpose of UltraViolet is to provide the end user with a single digital movie collection. Limiting the license, even on a gifted movie, to playback only on certain devices is directly contrary to the point. I’ll put up with some hoops and irritations on a freebie. But if the distributors want me to start actually buying films — which is, after all, the entire reason they’re handing out these freebies — then they need to be aware that I have as much right to set terms on our mutual transaction as they do. And a big one is that I need to be able to view the movie with any program I want to. Can you picture anybody buying a DVD that could only be played on Sony DVD players?
Something else I just stumbled upon, while I was poking around trying to get CinemaNow Player to actually play UltraViolet movies. A little disclaimer line in their website’s FAQ page: “We have exclusive agreements with movie studios for their titles. Once that agreement has concluded, the studio may choose to remove the title as a rental, a purchase, or both.” That’s not what I call acceptable. Once I’ve purchased the license to watch a movie, that should be the end of it. This may be tied into the whole player-specific-license issue mentioned above, but even if it is, it’s a bad precedent to me. If a purchased movie can be yanked away by the studio, that’s no longer a purchase — that’s an expensive rental. That’s not going to cut it with me, or with most folks. When I purchase a movie, then I should have the right to watch and download that digital copy without fear that this will be unilaterally revoked. After all, I can’t take my money back from the studio, can I? It’s the same thing. If the studio wants more money from me, they can do as they always do and encourage me to double-dip. Director’s cuts. Special features. 3D Editions. High def. Heck, create Super Ultra High Def some day and encourage me to repurchase films in that new shiny format. I’m OK with all of that. But that cheap vanilla copy I buy in the early days of digital? That’s mine until the day I die. Or we don’t have a deal.
One last thing on the whole licensing issue. I don’t know much about the physical player devices, but when I go to my UltraViolet account page, it tells me I can register “up to 12” players with my account. Apparently, if I want to use a player, I have to register it with the account. This corresponds to VUDU To Go’s warning that if I log into it with a different account, it’ll delete all files downloaded by the first account. There may be a “one account per device” restriction. There’s certainly a restriction on the devices per account. Now here’s a question: what happens if I go to my brother’s house and want to watch one of my movies with him? Can I register his player with my account so it can see my movies? If not, that’s hardly convenient for me. If I can, will this deregister it with his account and delete his files, the way VUDU To Go does? That wouldn’t be very nice to him. If it all plays nice, I suppose that’s OK (and I assume I can deregister his player from my account after so it won’t permanently count against my 12.) But it all sounds a little iffy. I should be able to just log into my account from his device, and queue up one of my movies. After all, if I go to his computer, I can log into any account I have on any website without screwing up my account or his. The worst that will happen is that he has to remember his password to log back in. That’s the worst that should happen with an UltraViolet player.
I realize there’s something of a simplification there. But this technology is being marketed to everybody, and that means it has to work for the lowest common denominator. It’s got to work for NASA scientists, computer programmers, auto mechanics, and the guy whose VCR is still blinking “12:00” as it fades into obsolescence. That means it has to just work. No fighting, no fussing. It has to be as straightforward and logical — common sense logical, not corporate lawyer logical — as can be. eBook distributors seem to be sort of figuring this out; most have some provision whereby you can “lend” a friend an eBook (rendering it unusable on your own device during the lending period), although they typically restrict it to a certain number of times to prevent people from acting as a library. But books or movies, the physical media have digital beat six ways to Sunday on this issue. What happens if I want to watch a movie with my brother? I take my DVD over there, pop it in his DVD player, and it just works. If I want to borrow a movie from him, I borrow the DVD, and it just works.
Admittedly, this may not be to the liking of the studios, distributors, and the MPAA. They are, after all, the same people that want a special license if you organize a viewing with several people. I can understand how, just like the eBook publishers don’t want unlicensed librarians, the studios don’t want someone acting as an unlicensed theatre or independent Blockbuster. And it is with this understanding, and full sympathies for the problem, and a genuine acknowledgement and endorsement of their capitalist ways that I say, from the bottom of my heart, tough shit. Sharing a movie with friends isn’t the same as airing it on a billboard every weekend. Borrowing a DVD from a friend isn’t piracy. People are not going to switch from a format where they can do these innocuous things to a format where they can’t just so that you can prevent the serious offenses, which most people don’t commit. It’s one of the most basic rules of business: if you want customers, treat them like customers, not like thieves. Any license which limits the setting in which a person can view the movie they purchased is an unacceptable license.
So I’ve mentioned internet concerns, and licensing issues. I’ve brought up the stumbling block of serious movie fans liking to have collections; people like to own stuff, and there’s something nice about a collection filling out shelves. But let’s assume the internet is where it needs to be, and the studios start acting sensible about licenses, and all us die-hards with mild hoarding tendencies are won over to the joys of having movies in the cloud. What’s the one last thing that digital distribution needs? A retail miracle. Walmart, Toys R Us and Best Buy have already gotten into the act themselves, but what about other brick-and-mortar stores? Are Target, Barnes & Noble, and K-Mart all going to launch their own UltraViolet websites and players as well? And what will they do in the physical stores? If digital truly takes over, there are no movies to stock in the store itself. I suppose they could stock UltraViolet discs that automatically install the movie to your player but this seems like it wouldn’t be a big step up over DVDs. The idea, after all, is to get rid of the physical component; most “combo packs” that include an UltraViolet copy just give a code to download it.
If DVDs and Blu-Ray disappear, that’s a lot of vacant space in the stores. Consider the places DVDs are placed right now in stores. Some are up front, the traditional place for impulse buys. If they’re not there, no impulse buy. And there’s no impulse buying online; you have to search for stuff, which rather takes the “impulse” out of it. Barring some clever marketing tricks — maybe a big kiosk up front displaying newly available UltraViolet titles? — there’s going to be a drop in sales. Other DVDs, the bulk of them, tend to be in the back of the store. If you’ve ever looked at a grocery store, really looked at it, you know what this means. Where’s the milk in the grocery store? As far from the entrance as possible. Why? Because almost everybody needs milk, so putting it that far away maximizes the amount of store that people see while going to buy it — thus maximizing the number of possible impulse buys. Now we look at department stores… and Walmart places their main movie section in the back, at least at all the ones I’ve been to. So does Target. And even stores that have them relatively close to the front have them arranged with an eye towards making sure you see a lot of other things as well. Target doesn’t want you to buy a movie from them. Target wants you to buy a movie and some candy and popcorn and the new Adele CD and maybe a new book, and hey, here are some birthday cards, don’t you know someone who has a birthday coming up? But there are no impulse buys at an online movie store. There is no Orville Redenbacher display enticing you to treat yourself just that little bit more.
This, as much as any potential consumer backlash, is a big hurdle for digital delivery to overcome. If retailers have any sense at all, they’re going to realize this is a bad deal for them. Now, the studios might think they can go it alone; after all, with digital delivery they don’t need a store-front. But movies don’t exist in a vacuum, unless it’s something critically-acclaimed but commercially-ignored like Amour. The studios still need those retailers to sell those Man of Steel action figures, Monsters University back-packs and official movie-edition Transformers. Even simple comedies get into the merchandising business with posters sold on the end caps. Cut out the retailers on the movies, and negotiating the sale of the merchandise will get harder. Walmart may be playing along for now, but they’ve proven willing to play hardball with suppliers in the past, and other retailers can as well. They may not be as big individually, but collectively it’s going to be an ugly hassle. Unless the studios find a way to arrange things so that digital sales don’t hurt the retailers, the retailers will find a way to hurt the studios. And that’s not going to be good for anybody.
It may be that, given enough time, all of these hurdles will be cleared and digital delivery will indeed be the wave of the future. But it seems to me that with all that needs to be done, anybody declaring the death of the disc should recall Mark Twain’s quote on reading a premature obituary: “The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” DVD and Blu-Ray may not be here to stay. But they, or some other physical media, are probably here for at least the next decade.