Movie downloads will be a big business... but for whom?

Riders and runners

There really are only three ways a digital film can get anywhere, carried pre-burned onto storage, broadcast at the same time for everyone or narrowcast down a broadband pipeline of some description. Well we are sure that Sony can arrange to send a copy of a UMD out to anyone that orders it, and perhaps partner both Amazon and Netflix on this approach for sale and rental. We think Sony will do that, but it’s not enough. It quite simply won’t provide the spontaneity of iTunes and neither will any process that broadcasts film files (like Disney’s Moviebeam service) although this is the approach that most mobile phone operators favor in the experiments on Digital Video Broadcasting for handhelds.

No, the only service that can give you instantaneous access, is either streaming over the internet, or best effort file downloading at very high speeds. Right now a film download will take a long time and will have to be run as a background task taking several hours. And that ruins it for its immediacy.

The final question is how to stop piracy on the service when launched?

The Apple approach was to make the experience better than piracy, and that shouldn’t be too difficult, just achieve everything listed above. The wide variety of choice, the right platform/s to play the films on, the right price, and the right first time, simple ease of use. But there is a feeling that if all that was possible right now then Steve Jobs and Apple would have already launched it.

One interesting last fact for Sony is that it already has a joint venture with Disney in Europe for selling a movie channel called Filmflex, which is already delivering films in the UK to cable TV channels. Why can’t it use the same distribution agreements to distribute the same films over the internet?

Meanwhile the Microsoft MSN film services are really just a series of video services for PC download, nothing fancy, and many of them amount to simple links to other existing services.

Since this is a service from Microsoft, it's only available for Windows and Windows mobile-based devices such as Portable Media Centers and select Smartphones and Pocket PCs.

MSN Video Downloads, at, is essentially a portal where consumers can go to download a variety of video content ranging from news and sports to home improvement and food-related programming. Content is updated on a daily basis and it is all designed to be absorbed on the move, not played on a TV.

For $19.95 a year, subscribers can choose the content they want to receive from the website. The selected digital videos are then downloaded daily to the user's Windows Media Player 10 library on a Windows XP PC. Once the content is downloaded, the user can then transfer it to a Portable Media Center or other Windows Mobile device. But using a web interface is one of the key lessons of iTunes. It just doesn’t. Instead iTunes is a specially downloaded program that will manage all of your music for you, and so is Sony’s Connect . So what Microsoft MSN is offering is really just a support mechanism for the portable media centers, which have not proved all that popular. Interestingly the service is supposed to include CinemaNow, Blockbuster and iFilm services, piggy backing on MSN traffic.

Microsoft is pushing the content in all compliant devices that carry Microsoft's “PlaysForSure” logo. Creative, iRiver and Samsung are among the companies that offer Portable Media Centers and in the end this service is just not revolutionary enough to be the new movie iTunes and it fails to meet any of the criteria we have stressed earlier, except the existence of a specialized player.

The Intel and Bertelsmann deal is little more than an announcement of intent at this stage, so it’s a little difficult to predict the shape of any service that comes out of these two, except to say that the announcement mentioned the cell phone as one of the places this content would be viewed.

In the end, despite Job’s continual protestations that Apple is focused on music, we now expect that studios will go with any platform that Apple offers them, on the basis that if the company has solved music piracy by inventing a better service, then it’s the only company that is likely to have the chutzpah to do the job a second time, this time for films.

Copyright © 2005, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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