Dear UltraViolet: You Have Front-Office Issues
For the past couple years, we’ve heard a lot about UltraViolet – an initiative brought about by the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), a consortium of movie studios, electronics manufacturers and retailers.
In short, UltraViolet allows you to access a digital copy of a DVD or Blu-ray disc you’ve just bought. The motto is “Buy Once, Play Anywhere,” and the idea is to make it as easy to purchase and play a title electronically, as it is to pop a DVD into any DVD player, no matter where you are.
Ultimately, of course, it’s a money thing. Studios understandably want viewers to continue to purchase their titles, but as physical media transitions to digital media, it’s gotten difficult, because of all the fragmentation in playback.
Meanwhile, Netflix and other rental/streaming options continue to flourish.
UltraViolet-enabled DVDs and Blu-ray discs come with a code that allows the owner to access the same video from the cloud (of whichever retailer was the point of sale), and on multiple devices.
Unlike iTunes Digital Copy, which handles both the Digital Rights Management (DRM) and the content, UltraViolet is a “digital locker” – that is, it handles the DRM but doesn’t actually store the content.
Currently, there are about 100 titles available though UltraViolet, with 5 of the 6 major movie studios on board, plus independent studio Lionsgate (though not all make movies available through the service yet). Disney, the only big studio not on board, is taking a “wait and see” approach, according to CEO Bob Iger.
In addition to being packaged in with new release titles, UltraViolet now allows consumers to buy access to digital copies of the discs they already own. Earlier this month, for instance, Walmart began offering an UltraViolet Disc to Digital service, meaning customers can bring in their DVDs or Blu-ray discs to a store, and purchase rights to stream and download those titles, through Walmart’s Vudu service.
It’s not clear how many titles are available at launch, but it’ll cost at least $2 to get a digital copy of the same resolution, and $5 to go from DVD to an HD version.
Samsung is also adding Disc to Digital support to its Smart Blu-ray players this year, through the Flixster app. This means owners will be able to pop an eligible DVD or Blu-ray disc into the player and register ownership, after which they can access an UltraViolet copy for a “nominal fee.”
Depending on the studio, the digital copy may be streaming-only or available for download. And here lies the catch: UltraViolet only guarantees streaming and/or download rights “for at least one year after purchase.”
While that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be cut off after a year, it does mean that you should probably download your UV movies sooner rather than later. And in the case of the studios that don’t actually allow you to download your movies, you may have to pay extra for streaming access to the titles you own after a year is up.
I signed up for UltraViolet through the Flixster app on my iPad, enticed by a promotion for a free movie download of my choice.
Flixster is part of Warner Brothers, and is currently the closest thing to a unified UltraViolet interface (though only half of the studios backing UltraViolet allow their content to be accessed through Flixster.)
Once I signed up for both Flixster and UltraViolet using Facebook, I checked out the free movie selection and tried to view more information on one of the titles.
Alas. Somehow, in seeking more info, I accidentally locked it in as my final selection with a single tap. Fortunately, just as I was getting frustrated, Flixster announced that I was getting a bonus free movie on top of the one I’d just accidentally selected. And then it deposited a link to stream or download “He’s Just Not That Into You” into my library. (Ummm … thank you?)
I did ultimately manage to successfully download a movie to my iPad through the Flixster app, but when I went back to the app a couple days later, I got a pop-up notification that I hadn’t confirmed my email address, and needed to log in to the UltraViolet site on a computer before I could access my collection. Iy-yi-yi.
Alas, again: The Facebook credentials I used to sign up through Flixster weren’t recognized by UltraViolet. As a result, I’ve been locked out of my UltraViolet account for the last two weeks. I’ve been assured that the UltraViolet team is “reviewing my issue and will respond as quickly as possible,” but in the meantime this means I’ve got a full-length movie taking up space on my iPad, and I’m unable to access or even delete it. Naturally, my solution to this problem is to just delete the Flixster app altogether.
As I see it, the problem with UltraViolet is this: in trying to unify a fragmented marketplace in a hurry, they have given users an extremely fragmented front-office experience. While some studios give us a choice of different sources for their video, such as iTunes, Amazon and Vudu, others only work with Flixster or proprietary apps.
And for those of us who don’t already own a lot of physical media (and don’t have kids who want to watch the same title over and over and over – I’m told this happens 😉 — there’s not really any incentive to shell out for an UltraViolet copy. That said, although some studios are beginning to offer UltraViolet-only titles, you’ll pay a lot more for those than the same content on iTunes or Amazon.
DECE says that in the next few months it will make the UltraViolet service more consistent, with enhancements such as a Common File Format — so a single downloaded file will work on multiple devices. This is a start, but I don’t really see UltraViolet taking off unless they quickly ramp up the number of titles available and make them all available through a unified app.