UltraViolet Is Here. Are You Ready? Is It?

Nov 3, 2011 by

UltraViolet—the long-awaited digital content solution that promises to let consumers watch their content whenever and wherever they want to—is here. It arrived quietly in October in what can only be described as a “soft” release with two initial titles: Horrible Bosses and Green Lantern.

The Idea

The concept is noble: give consumers the rights and means to watch movies and TV shows they’ve purchased on any device. We’ve wanted this for years, right? Why shouldn’t you be able to watch a movie on your tablet or PC if you already paid for it on disc? Or what if you want to watch a movie you downloaded on the backseat entertainment system in your car? The closest thing we have to this today is the Digital Copy that’s sometimes bundled with DVD and Blu-ray packaged media. As we’ve known it thus far, Digital Copy has been in the form of standard definition iTunes or CinemaNow downloads. A redemption code packaged with these discs unlocks the media online, letting you load it on your computer or supported mobile device.

The problem with these solutions is that they rely on technology that’s specific to certain devices and platforms. iTunes videos aren’t supported on Android or Windows Mobile devices, and CinemaNow doesn’t support the Apple ecosystem. The forces behind UltraViolet hope to fix this with a (hypothetically) cross-platform content and player ecosystem that plays nice on all devices. Of course, it’s more practical to interpret “all” as “all newer” in this context. While we may see UltraViolet player apps on existing connected TVs and set-top boxes, it’s pretty clear that most legacy devices will not magically evolve the ability to play UltraViolet content.

UltraViolet is designed to provide consumers with a number of playback options. Those who purchase packaged discs with UltraViolet capability will receive a redemption code that allows them to unlock access to the purchased movie or TV episodes in a cloud-based digital locker. They can then stream that on any desktop, laptop, set-top, tablet, or mobile device using supporting player software. Consumers will also be able to download at least three copies of the movie or episodes for offline viewing on some devices. UltraViolet will also offer consumers the ability to purchase digital content without disc media, possibly allowing them to burn a copy to disc if they decide they want that later [but I’ll believe that as soon as I see Managed Copy show up on Blu-ray titles].

It’s worth noting that the forces behind Ultraviolet are significant: they include five of the six major studios (excluding Disney) and a nice complement of consumer electronics manufacturers (excluding Apple). These exclusions aren’t surprising, considering that Disney and Apple are allied on the iTunes platform and Disney has also been brewing its own content locker solution. [Full disclosure: I hold stock in both of these companies.]

The Launch

The initial titles offering UltraViolet are all from Warner Brothers. The previously-mentioned two movies were joined by Crazy Stupid Love at the end of October and will soon be accompanied by November’s blockbuster Harry Potter release. Additional titles have been announced by two of the other studios on board, and those will roll out over the next few quarters, but for now, Warner Brothers seems to be leading the charge for UltraViolet. The only software supporting it today is Flixster. You may remember Flixster as a movie app that lets you look up movies, reviews, trailers, and even manage your Netflix Queue on iOS, Android, and most browsers. You may also remember that Warner Brothers purchased Flixster a few months back, raising all sorts of questions about strategy and conflicted interests. Suddenly, that purchase makes more sense now.

As for device support in TVs, set-top boxes, and other connected systems…it’s not here yet, and it probably won’t be until the first half of 2012. As of today, the options for where and how you can play UltraViolet content are limited, as shown in the table below. If we’re to believe the pitch, though, all of these boxes will eventually be filled in.

Connected
streaming
Downloaded
copy playback
Purchase
digital copy
PC X X
Mac X X
iOS X
Android X
Windows Phone
Set-top boxes, TVs, etc.

The Experience

If the lack of titles and device support doesn’t give you pause to hold off on diving into the deep end of the UltraViolet pool, the initial experience might. I’ve been a skeptic about UltraViolet from its initial announcement, but I wanted to give it a fair shake. So I purchased one of the early titles and decided to give it a try.

Entertainment 2.0 listeners probably know that while using and evangelizing Windows Media Center, I’m mostly a Mac guy. Likewise, I have iOS mobile devices, and I’ve bought into [more accurately, invested heavily in] the iTunes music and video ecosystem. So, while on one hand, I’m glad I can take iTunes Digital Copy downloads with me when I travel, it frustrates me that I can’t easily integrate that content into Media Center (or anywhere other than iTunes or an iOS device).

The Purchase. When included with DVD and Blu-ray discs, UltraViolet is called “Digital Copy,” just like the iTunes and CinemaNow versions.

Top: Packaging for UltraViolet Digital Copy; Bottom: Packaging for iTunes Digital Copy

Elsewhere on the packaging, it’s explicitly referred to as “UltraViolet Digital Copy.” A label on the combo pack I purchased attempted to further clarify. Let the confusion start here.

UltraViolet label on combo pack packaging

Whatever you call it, expect to pay a premium for most titles that include UltraViolet Digital Copy, just like with the combo packs we’ve been seeing on store shelves for the past two years or so.

Registering. To use UltraViolet, you must create Flixster and Ultraviolet accounts. The process goes something like this: go to a special Flixster web address identified on the disc packaging; create a new account on Flixster (yes I’m over 18, yes I agree to your terms I didn’t read, no I don’t want email about Warner Brothers stuff); wait…wait…wait; create a new UltraViolet account (yes I agree); wait…wait…wait; connect the two accounts (more things to agree to); wait…wait…wait. Did I mention the online services were slow? It makes you wonder how it’s going to hold up to the potential flood of Harry Potter fans in the coming weeks.

Redeeming. Selecting the title I had purchased was easy—I only had four to choose from, two of which weren’t available yet. Next, I had to enter my redemption code that was included with my disc purchase. Piece of cake. In 10 seconds, Green Lantern and a second, unexpected animated Green Lantern title appeared in My Collection.

The Software. You can stream UltraViolet content on your Mac or PC directly on Flixster’s UltraViolet web site. In iOS and Android, you can stream content from the Flixster app. Many people already use Flixster to discover upcoming, released, and home video movies. All I had to do on the iPad was log in to my newly-created Flixster account, and the new movies were ready to stream in My Collections. At this point, I have not yet had an opportunity to try Flixster on Android.

To download movies or episodes on the Mac and PC, you must install some Flixster software on your computer—an AIR application. If you don’t have AIR (Adobe’s cross-platform runtime environment), you’ll need to install that first, then install the Flixster Collections application. The application itself is a multidimensional content browsing and discovery app designed as a horizontally-scrolling window of vertically-scrolling panels. It’s a usability nightmare.

Flixster Collections presents your Digital Copy content in a complicated and noisy desktop application experience

Sign in to Flixster again, this time within the app, and you can download and play your available content. I had a fair amount of difficulty getting my new movie to show up in the app, and in trying to add and download it, I ended up “spending” two of my three permitted downloads. The app doesn’t give you any indication that a download is occurring or—once it has completed—how many downloads you have remaining. You click Download, and while it’s happening in the background, there’s no cue to let you know that it is, in fact, downloading. It doesn’t even respond or acknowledge your download request/click.

Once the title has downloaded, you can play it on your Mac or PC from within Flixster Collections without being connected to the Internet.

Playback. The digital copy of the movie I purchased—even though part of a Blu-ray combo pack—is only available in standard definition. Specifically, it’s a 640 by 360 MPEG-4 video. UltraViolet supposedly offers HD video, but this title is not, and from what I can tell, no content is available in HD yet. The video quality is actually pretty crappy. While it looks good on tablets and smaller mobile devices, it’s terrible on a large monitor or television. In comparison, iTunes digital copies are typically anamorphic DVD quality—853 by whatever, depending on the aspect ratio.

Playback position is not retained between devices or sessions. Closing Flixster Collections on the desktop then reopening and playing the movie restarted it from the beginning every time. The Flixster app on iOS does a better job of remembering the last play position, but that’s likely because the app stays open once it’s loaded. It’s worth noting that AirPlay is not supported for UltraViolet playback on iOS devices. Using AirPlay between an iPad and Apple TV, the UltraViolet video failed to play. Other videos in the Flixster app like movie trailers, however, did work through AirPlay, suggesting that this capability is being explicitly blocked.

First Impressions

UltraViolet is the entertainment industry’s coordinated attempt to solve a problem that consumers have been facing for years: accessing purchased content on multiple devices and multiple platforms without having to repurchase the content repeatedly. But like many industry-backed efforts, the solution delivery is slow and initially lacking in many of the capabilities it promises to offer. The content is limited, registration and setup is slow and clunky, the desktop software is a horrible mess, disconnected playback isn’t supported anywhere but on Macs and PCs, and the video quality is poor.

Honestly, UltraViolet is just getting off the ground, so I have to cut it some slack for general start-up pains. That said, I’m not betting on this horse yet. Launching an entirely new content delivery platform is an ambitious endeavor, and they clearly have a long way to go yet. Consumers generally don’t even know that this exists yet, and educating them isn’t going to be easy since this essentially replaces Digital Copy solutions that are already in place with iTunes and CinemaNow. Until there’s a better catalog of titles, significantly expanded device support, and better consumer understanding, I won’t be investing in any more UltraViolet content.

Sponsor