The big word in Hollywood these days is “UltraViolet.” Not as in electromagnetic radiation or the awful Mila Jovovich flick, but as in the still budding cloud-based licensing system for movies that’s touted as a way for consumers to “buy once, play anywhere.” The brainchild of movie executives eager to squash the success of online rental streaming services like Netflix by giving customers more incentive to buy, UltraViolet stands poised to revolutionize the entertainment industry by enabling movie lovers to watch legally purchased movies on a variety of devices, from PCs to mobile phones to tablets.
Well, that’s the spin anyway. UltraViolet faces a huge uphill battle against Apple, which now supports DVD “digital copy” streaming over iCloud with its new Apple TV (if you bought a DVD or Blu Ray in the past few years, you probably have a few digital copies). However, Walmart could be the white knight. The mega retailer accounts for roughly 40% of all DVD sales and will soon support UltraViolet by selling UltraViolet movie copies through Vudu, its online movie service, and by also offering a “disk to digital” service in stores. Essentially, users will be able to bring their old DVDs into a Walmart, which will then provide a digital copy for what is currently an undisclosed price. (Update: SD movie transfers will cost $2 through the Walmart service, while HD transfers will cost $5. Vudu will also support all current UltraViolet movie files.)
So, is UltraViolet really all-that-and-a-bucket-of-popcorn? Or will the movie industry’s efforts fall flat in a Pluto Nash-like flop of epic proportions? Here’s what we have to say on the matter.
How UltraViolet Works
The way UltraViolet works should be simple, but unfortunately, it’s not. In fact, it’s a bit ridiculous. Customer buys DVD or Blu-ray. Said movie comes with a redeemable code that, when punched in to the movie studio’s website, fills said customer’s piggy bank (or digital locker, if you prefer) with a digital copy of the movie that can be accessed anytime, on a variety of different devices. Easy-peasy, no? Uh, no. The geniuses in charge of this operation have gone and botched the job by requiring you to create accounts across numerous sites, each of them operating in conjunction with one another. As you can imagine, too many cooks in the kitchen can ruin a good recipe. Simplicity is what the public craves and demands, but it’s not what they’re getting in UltraViolet.
First, there’s the actual UltraViolet website to register with, which apparently serves as a central library to direct you to the various platforms you’ll need to engage in order to view your digital copy. Once registration here is done, you’ve then got to register with the website of the studio that owns the digital rights to the movie itself, which could keep you busy for some time considering that there are six total as of the time of this writing (Disney has wisely decided to sit this effort out): Sony Pictures Entertainment, NBC Universal, Fox Entertainment Group, Paramount, Lionsgate, and Warner Bros.
If that’s not enough, you’ll next have to register with yet another website or application – in the case of Warner Bros., your next stop will be Flixster, where upon registration you’ll be prompted to link your UV and Flixster accounts together so that you watch your movie. The worst part about the Warner Bros./Flixster experience? It’s not working for everyone. While the video quality is good when it works, the stream is given to buffering frequently, leaving users to download the movie to their tablets or mobile devices. As for the rest of the studios, they’re presently trying out different viewing methods that include loading the movie onto your mobile device or streaming it from the studio website itself, which requires a data connection, obviously.
As you can imagine, there’s plenty of good news to go with the bad news about UltraViolet. Besides, we shouldn’t get all “glass half empty” over UV… at least not yet.
The Cons of UV
- Studios aren’t working together to provide customers with a streamlined way of viewing UltraViolet movies.
- Convoluted and confusing registration method.
- The central UltraViolet website itself doesn’t have the option to keep you logged in, so each time your session expires, you have to sign in again with your user ID and password.
- Not all studios offer the ability to buy just the digital movies online yet, and instead rely on a physical disk purchase.
The Pros of UV
- Allows you to share your UltraViolet account with up to five other people so that, presumably, a group of friends can share in a single movie purchase.
- Future plans are in the works to allow customers to “upgrade” older DVDs and Blu-Rays that were released prior to UltraViolet (disk to digital).
- Video quality is available in both high-definition and standard.
- UltraViolet rights don’t expire. Unlike existing streaming movie services like Netflix and the vast variety of other 24-hour rental platforms, UV is permanent. The “buy once, play anywhere” slogan could be changed to “buy once, play anywhere, forever.”
How it Stacks Up
And now, for the inevitable comparisons. Keep in mind that UltraViolet is still in development, but does it offer anything over the competition?
- Netflix: The once and future king of online entertainment streaming, Netflix was pioneering the concept of instant entertainment when the “big six” movie studios listed above were still busy trying to plug holes in their sinking ship, working out methods of hamstringing the wishes of legitimate buyers to copy movies to transferrable formats. Vision counts for a lot, and that’s where Netflix earns mega brownie points. But in the two critical areas of execution and choice, Netflix is still a bit lacking and by now you’d think they’d have figured out how to deliver a much wider selection of titles with superior streaming quality (in other words, Netflix is great for catching up on television series, but has a poor mainstream movie selection). That said, the ease with which movies can be streamed to practically any device, mobile or otherwise, puts Netflix at the top of the heap.
- Hulu Plus: Unlike Hulu Plus, the UV model doesn’t rely on annoying commercial advertisements to keep it in operation. Hulu Plus’ claim that its placement of commercials are there to keep the monthly subscription premium down to a reasonable $7.99 doesn’t cut it, especially not when you can get a fully uninterrupted experience from Netflix for the same amount of money. Yes, Hulu Plus has a far more extensive library of movies and shows than Netflix does, but the fact that the only non-Apple tablet devices it’ll run on are the Kindle Fire, Vizio tablet and the Nook Tablet pretty much leaves it dead in the water as far as Android tablet owners are concerned.
- Google Movies/ YouTube Premium, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes: Instant convenience is a major draw factor for these services, and will continue to be as time wears on. Each of the top online movie rental/purchase platforms – Google Movies, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, and YouTube Premium – represent precisely what UltraViolet is trying to accomplish, with one major difference: they do it far better. They are all much simpler, require minimal login hassle, and they have a great selection to boot. Sure, there are some limitations, like the fact that iTunes confines you to Apple products, and free Amazon Instant Video streaming requires an Amazon Prime account. But the hassle of juggling all three services is still less than the hassle of dealing with UV at this point.