Digital Downsizing

Downed DownloadersI am no prophet. I don’t see into the future, and if I make any prognostications that turn out to be correct, it is only because I have looked at the existing situation, connected the dots, and extrapolated ahead. I don’t imagine my track record on predictions is any better than most peoples’. Yet it appears that I may have been onto something when I said that digital delivery for movies weren’t going to take over from DVDs right away. I’m not saying the idea is a complete failure, of course; nothing of the sort. But it’s apparent that it’s a more difficult sell than the media distributors were expecting.

Why do I say that? Well, it’s related to the reason there haven’t been any Tech Reviews on the site since summer 2013. The last two times I was ready to write a review of a new service, the service went under before I had the review written. And now a third, which had been one of my earlier reviews and one of my favorite services, has just been scheduled for shuttering.

Let’s talk about the players for a bit. Or non-players now, I suppose. First, and I would say least (though I’m not really knocking it), is Target Ticket. Target Ticket is an UltraViolet service from the retail chain Target. Walmart has VUDU, Best Buy has CinemaNow, and Target apparently decided they wanted in on that action. I tried the service and liked it; the software is built on the same architecture as the CinemaNow player and works pretty much the same. Target Ticket launched in September 2013. It’s being shut down on March 7, 2015. I suppose it’s not too surprising; Target’s been having some troubles of their own lately, liquidating their entire Canadian subsidiary, so they’re probably looking to trim the budget all over the place. And at least they’re not leaving their customers in the lurch; the movies were part of the UltraViolet rights locker system, and they’ll transfer the users’ licenses over to CinemaNow. I can get by without Target Ticket. But it does mean that there’s one fewer option out there for people.

Then there’s HitBliss. I miss HitBliss. I once wrote, when criticizing Hulu’s recent heavy advertising, that I would happily watch 20 minutes of commercials before a film if it meant that I could then watch the film without interruption. Evidently I wasn’t the only one who had this idea, because that was HitBliss’s business model. You would watch commercials, periodically clicking a button to show you were genuinely still watching (this would get less frequent as you showed reliability), and you would be given credit in your HitBliss account. Although the commercial selection during the Beta was pretty limited, you did have the option to only watch commercials on certain themes (such as home care products, PSAs or movie trailers). About 20-30 minutes of commercial watching would add up to $6 in your account (which is where they capped it). They had a modest but reasonable selection of movies they rented via streaming, at $3-4 each. Better yet, they’d partnered with Amazon so that you could rent from a much larger selection from there. For a movie lover with both a limited budget and limited bandwidth, this was as close to a perfect situation as I could expect. I could spend some time watching commercials (which usually preloaded without too much trouble due to the brief length per ad), then rent any of a number of major films from Amazon, queue it up in Amazon Unbox, spend the day downloading it, and watch it the next night without any interruption from an ad or from my shoddy internet connection.

But back in April 2014, HitBliss put their beta on “hiatus”, supposedly while they worked out licensing agreements with advertisers… and they have never come back. Their website is still up, but the Insider blog on it has been a blank page for several months. Their Twitter account hasn’t posted an update since May 1st. Their official Facebook page no longer exists. Since they said they were putting it on hiatus, and expressed an intention to return, some small part of me still holds out hope. But realistically, after ten months of complete silence, I have to assume they’re gone.

In a way, it’s just as well, though. As noted, I used Amazon Unbox (the download-and-play service), not Amazon Instant Video (the streaming service), because of my internet issues. And yesterday, Amazon announced that they are shutting down Unbox. Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime Instant Video are continuing, but those streaming options are the only options remaining at Amazon. For people who have purchased videos and use Unbox, Amazon is (for a very limited time) offering a license upgrade to play the videos on Windows Media Player. The decision is frustrating for me, because that was generally my preferred method of digital rentals. The software worked, I could play without worrying about buffering, and Amazon has one of the largest libraries of offerings. By going to only streaming, Amazon has just cost themselves a portion of my custom; from now on, all my digital rentals will be through CinemaNow (and the ill-will won’t help general Amazon sales either). Now, it’s entirely possible that Amazon doesn’t care about this. They’ve got their Fire, they still have their streaming services. Maybe they don’t think that Unbox was a significant part of their digital media footprint. But if it wasn’t, it’s only because they didn’t make it so.

Most of the U.S. is still lagging behind when it comes to having true high-bandwidth internet. Most people cannot realistically stream an HD movie without having it interrupted by the need to buffer — or having the quality degraded severely, depending on what approach a site is using. If Amazon doesn’t think download-and-play isn’t a significant part of the market, it’s only because they haven’t made it so. I never saw them advertise Unbox — not on TV, not on the web. I strongly suspect most people who have trouble streaming video simply were never aware that Amazon had ever offered another option. I only discovered it by accident myself. And that seems to be the ongoing theme with most of these digital services; most of them I’ve simply stumbled across. Amazon’s streaming services are an exception, and so is Walmart’s VUDU, but otherwise, I think most people are probably unaware of just what options they really have. Even iTunes, a media juggernaut in terms of music, doesn’t often get talked about when it comes to movies (though perhaps that’s due to its technical issues.)

And what I’m seeing now, as these services shut their doors, is a consolidation. Walmart’s going to win in the end, I think. The other UltraViolet providers are going to gradually slough off; I think even Best Buy’s CinemaNow might in time. After all, CinemaNow even using UltraViolet is a shift from their original approach, so they’ve already “surrendered” a bit of ground (though I think that much is a good thing for consumers; the more compatibility, the better.) I hope CinemaNow does stick around, since VUDU only offers download-and-play with purchases, not rentals, but I can’t consider it a guaranteed thing. They probably have a better chance than most, though; the smaller upstarts trying to take a piece of the pie are going to continue to fall by the wayside. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, within five years, we see other retail chains selling DVDs with VUDU licenses — or at least, if they won’t directly say VUDU (being that it’s Walmart’s program), they’re just selling UltraViolet licenses without any attempt at having their own branding and software.

Where there is another big competitor, I think they’ll gradually shift to using UltraViolet, just as CinemaNow did. Right now, there’s those who use UltraViolet, and there’s Google Play, Amazon Instant Video/Prime, and iTunes — and only the latter offers a non-streaming option. And maybe there are a few minor services out there using something else. But I think we’re heading to a time where both streaming services and download-and-play services are all using UltraViolet. Disney appears to be hedging their bets with their own digital rights locker, Disney Movies Anywhere, but the way they’re doing it is to partner with just about everybody. They partnered first with iTunes, but within the year, they partnered with Google Play, and scarcely a week later with VUDU. Purchase once, watch anywhere, just as the name says. Google Play and iTunes don’t sell UltraViolet, but Disney has effectively said “Yes, you are.” And somehow I doubt this is the end of it.

More consolidation will be coming, and eventually we’ll probably be looking at one service, sold in multiple places. Which, for consumers, is overall a good thing. Just so long as they remember that some consumers need different playback options.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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