Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Here Comes Another Cloud: Hollywood Hopes “UltraViolet” Will Save DVDs

Say this for UltraViolet: It actually launched.

When word first got out that most of Hollywood and the tech industry was working on a “Giant Media DRM Cloud Coalition Featuring Everyone Except Apple and Disney” (and Amazon ), the safe bet was to assume the thing would never see the light of day.

But here it is. Today you can buy “Horrible Bosses,” the first UltraViolet-blessed movie, on DVD or Blu-ray, and it will come with a code that will let you stream and/or download the film on other devices, like iPads, Android phones and laptops.

At least in theory. Time Warner’s Warner Bros. showed me some slides yesterday that spelled out how it’s supposed to work — digital access to the movie is tethered to the Flixster app/site the studio bought in May, using Facebook as a login (Mark Zuckerberg = Big Media’s new buddy). But I can’t vouch for it in any way, because I have no idea if it really works.

The idea, though, makes perfect sense: Of course a DVD purchase should entitle you to watch the same movie on multiple machines.

And if Warner Bros. doesn’t charge a premium for UltraViolet movies — which they don’t appear to be doing with “Horrible Bosses” — then it makes a whole lot more sense.

No one is going to get too excited about the prospect of watching “Horrible Bosses” on your laptop and your TV. But Warner Bros., which has been banging the drum hard on this cloud/locker idea, will be rolling out big movies for UltraViolet later this year, including the newest “Harry Potter” and the “Hangover” sequel. Sony will chip in some movies soon, too.

And later on, the UltraViolet folks promise that they’ll have more movies, and more compatible devices, too, like connected TVs and game players like Xbox 360, etc.

A couple of things to think about as this stuff rolls out:

  • The UltraViolet people say they can make this work without buy-in from Apple and Amazon, both of whom are launching their own not-that-compatible cloud media services. I’m not so sure about that. For now, UltraViolet is leaning on Flixster, which is already well-distributed on both iOS and Android — which means this should work on Amazon’s Kindle Fire, too. But there will be plenty of places for Apple or Amazon to flex their muscles and make it more difficult for UltraViolet down the line. On the other hand, the studios pushing UltraViolet have stuff that both Apple and Amazon want — digital rights for their movies and TV shows — so there could also be some horse trading.
  • All of this only matters if people still want to own movies. The movie guys are quite clear about their motivation for UltraViolet — they think it will sustain a huge revenue stream by encouraging DVD sales. But the technology that makes UltraViolet’s locker work (in theory) also means there’s no reason to own a film at all — if you can pull down whatever you want from the cloud, wherever you are, who cares whether you “own” it or not? This concept used to be hard for people to grasp, but not anymore — which is why Netflix, despite its months of missteps, still has some 24 million subscribers.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work