Coming to a Gadget Near You: A Movie for All Your Screens

Taking a movie to watch on the go is about to get easier.

Entertainment companies and electronics makers have promised a future in which people will buy a movie once and then watch it on any of their gadgets. With a new service called UltraViolet that lets users build an online library of movies, Hollywood has taken a big step toward making that a reality.

Until now, watching movies on the go has been a frustrating—and pricy—experience. People often must buy a copy of a movie for each device: a Blu-ray from Best Buy for the TV and a digital copy from Apple’s iTunes for the iPad, for example. Some Hollywood studios have sold “combo” packs with a disc and a digital file, but the digital copies often came with playing limits and few guarantees they would work on future devices.

After three years of negotiations, last week a consortium of large Hollywood studios, gadget makers and retailers launched a cloud-based service that lets people watch online or mobile versions of the movies they bought on DVD or Blu-ray. This free “digital locker” keeps track of movie purchases and gets copies of them onto laptops, smartphones and more.

PTECH

‘Green Lantern’ is one of two UltraViolet titles now available.

Movie and electronics companies have begun rolling out UltraViolet services on a few devices for a few movies and haven’t given a timeline for when there will be more. But they say eventually UltraViolet movies will work on many different devices and, by the end of the year, will come with most new Hollywood titles.

For now, though, UltraViolet’s offerings are slim. By the holidays, the service will work with at least 10 new DVD or Blu-ray discs, compared with thousands offered by online digital movie stores such as Amazon.com and Apple. But UltraViolet has a big advantage: the backing of some of the largest Hollywood studios, including Warner Brothers, NBC-Universal, Sony, Paramount, Fox and Lionsgate. (Fox is a unit of News Corp., which owns this newspaper.) Other companies involved include Comcast, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Netflix, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Wal-Mart’s Vudu. Disney has chosen not to participate and is developing its own digital locker, Disney Studio All Access.

For Hollywood, UltraViolet is an attempt to get consumers interested in buying movies again at a time when disc sales are on the decline, and more people are renting movies or streaming them online through services like Netflix.

Here’s how UltraViolet works today: I bought a disc at Best Buy with the movie “Green Lantern” to play in my Blu-ray player. Inside the case was a flier with a code I typed into a website called Flixster, where I registered for a digital locker with UltraViolet. After that, I could stream the movie to an iPhone and iPad using a free Flixster app, which is also available for Android phones and tablets. On a Windows laptop, I downloaded a copy from a free Flixster program that I can watch while on a plane without Internet access. The process went smoothly, though it could be streamlined. Entering redemption codes reminded me of collecting cereal-box tops to win a prize.

The UltraViolet group says at least one of its members is working on technology that will offer many ways to automatically add titles to a digital locker, including just by putting a disc into an Internet-equipped Blu-ray player. UltraViolet still has a huge content hurdle to cross. The only two movies available with it so far are “Green Lantern” and “Horrible Bosses,” though the studios promise 10, including the final “Harry Potter,” by the holidays.

And to really catch on, UltraViolet’s members may have to develop a way to add previous DVD purchases to a digital locker, like people do with music by “ripping” old audio CDs.

Still, buying an UltraViolet movie already comes closer to the idea of “buy once, play anywhere” than anything else on the market.

The one place UltraViolet streaming doesn’t currently work is your TV, though, of course, you can play your DVD there. The UltraViolet group’s aim, they say, is that there will be UltraViolet-compatible software built into TVs and set-top boxes, and consumers will even be able to buy UltraViolet movies online without a disc.

Like many cloud storage services that have emerged in recent months, using UltraViolet requires a strong Internet connection for all of your devices. My iMac with a cable Internet connection took 15 minutes to download “Green Lantern.” A representative for Flixster, which is owned by Warner Brothers, said it plans to upgrade its app to allow users to pre-load UltraViolet movies onto tablets and smartphones and watch them without Internet access.

For $19.99, I got a high-definition Blu-ray disc that played on my TV, as well as streamed in DVD-quality to my iPhone, iPad, and downloaded in DVD-quality to my Mac and PC computers. (A DVD version of the UltraViolet movie sold for $14.99.) Other stores aren’t as flexible as UltraViolet. Amazon.com’s digital locker service, Instant Video, sells a DVD-quality digital version of “Green Lantern” for $14.99 that I could stream only to computers or to my TV (via a Tivo, Blu-ray player, or other compatible device). And while Amazon let me download the movie on my PC, its software doesn’t work for Mac downloads. (Amazon’s videos will work on the forthcoming Kindle Fire.)

Apple’s iTunes store sells “Green Lantern” for $14.99 in a format that will play on a PC or Mac, and in high-definition on an iPad and on TV via a $99 Apple TV. But Apple’s movie purchases don’t play well with devices from other makers and TVs without an add-on Apple TV. Apple’s iCloud service, released last week, doesn’t yet support streaming iTunes movie purchases, but Apple is working on that.

UltraViolet is still young, but with the backing of so many major companies, it appears poised to help reinvent the way people buy and watch home video. UltraViolet may just be the best way to make sure your movies are free to play everywhere in the future.

Walt Mossberg and his Mossberg’s Mailbox will return on Thursday, Nov. 3.

Write to Geoffrey Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com


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