A week ago I wrote about the new streaming service, Vudu. After several days of use I already have some comments/concerns that might impact those thinking of trying it out.
First and foremost is that if you go down this path understand that Vudu doesn’t fully control their own destiny. The entire affair is tied at the hip to another project called Ultraviolet and Ultraviolet is a bit of mess.
Ultraviolet, as I noted before, is an industry group of roughly 73 different organizations in the movie industry. The idea is for them to create a solution for consumers for movies that helps thwart what happened in the music industry—that is, consumers having no option from the industry and creating their own (ie, Napster). The broad strokes all look good. You buy a movie and it comes with a physical disc and an Ultraviolet code that you can redeem at several different services (or on the Ultraviolet site itself) to then watch any time, anywhere you have Internet access. You can even download the movie and watch it offline. Even more incredible is that you can add five friends to your account who can watch all your stuff.
It all seems great—on the surface. Underneath is a mess of complexities and complications. The Vudu service is still a marvel of design with great intentions but the engine is the concern. You’ll need to understand several key issues to avoid problems.
One problem is the Ultraviolet codes themselves. As originally designed they existed as a value-added feature for existing DVD’s and Blu-ray discs. You buy the actual physical media and the studio gives you this code you can use to also watch the movie online. Okay, that’s interesting. Vudu, however, doesn’t sell you physical media. If you buy the content from them they just turn on the streaming version of the movie.
This presents a conundrum. Others picked up on this and started “unbundling” their codes from the actual discs and selling the codes on ebay (and elsewhere). Several studios complained and now ebay is suspending the accounts of those who get caught doing it (after a warning). Those studios see this approach as reducing the value of the movie. Owners see it differently. They might have interest in just one of the two so selling the remainder to someone who’s interested in the opposite just makes sense to them.
My problem with it is that it seemed like the perfect answer for me. I don’t want physical discs any longer. If I can get the movie for a fraction of its cost on disc then that’s great. The code doesn’t need to be manufactured, printed or shipped. It’s just a code. It should be much cheaper. This is a classic case of where companies let greed get in the way. They see a movie as having a value no matter what it cost to produce in that medium. The problem is, they’ve already discounted their own product. I can view it as a theater for $10. I can rent it for a buck or two. I can buy it on disc for $14.99 and up. Why wouldn’t I be able to virtually own it for a few bucks? Well, because the studios see the codes as the same thing as the disc and want the same money. Too bad. They’re not the same. Get over it.
Another issue deals with the complexity of new types of quality. Ultraviolet movies currently come in three quality levels—SD (Standard Definition), HD (High Definition) and HDX (the highest quality). The problem here is that when you buy Ultraviolet codes you may not know what quality level you’re getting. Generally a Blu-ray movie comes with an HDX code but not always. Worse is when you simply have no idea based on the provider. I bought three codes from a provider and found that only one was HDX. The other two were both SD (which I have no interest in) and none of the source information made any note of the limitation.
Another issue I ran into was in the redemption process. Much to my surprise it wasn’t anywhere near as clear as it could be. Different movie studios provide different ways to redeem their movies and not all movies can be redeemed by one service provider (like Vudu). One movie I was interested in (Extremely Loud & Incredible Close) could not be redeemed on Vudu or, in fact, on the official Ultraviolet site. More confusing was that Warner Brothers (the studio responsible for it) own sales site made it clear you could by the DVD with full Ultraviolet support but then their own Ultraviolet site denied any knowledge of this movie supporting Ultraviolet. I had to go to a very specific Flixster site to redeem it and that also means it’s also only viewable on Flixster which also means I can’t watch it on my Roku or a PS3 or any other typical device. Had I known this in advance I wouldn’t have bothered.
A continuation of the above issue has to do with multiple accounts. My Flixster account, which I created some time ago and forgot about, registered the movie but that account wasn’t tied into my main Ultraviolet account and thus, now, I have to distinct accounts to deal with for my Ultraviolet movie watching. There’s no way to combine accounts or to move content from one to another.
One of the biggest positives regarding Vudu is that they’re owned by Walmart. It’s also true that this is one of their biggest drawbacks. Why? Disc-to-Digital. This seemingly interesting feature could be a major positive. The idea is pretty simple. Take your existing DVD collection to any Walmart and have them convert it to digital for online viewing anywhere. The cost is $2 to convert it as long as you stay within the same general quality level. For $5 you can upgrade your standard definition DVD’s to Vudu’s HDX format (if it’s available). The quality difference is night and day. Plus you get to keep your originals. Walmart stamps them with a permanent watermark so that no one else can use them to get “free” movies. This feels a bit like overkill to me. This is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and creates its own issue.
Most concerning is that Walmart doesn’t seem at all prepared to handle this. Vudu reps make a big deal of telling you about the painless process but I had to go to four different Walmart’s before I found one capable of actually converting my movies. Once there I had to call Vudu support to get the willing Walmart employee through the process. It turned out that, at least for my account, the rep wasn’t supposed to including my account phone number on her screen (even though it asks for one). Once that was removed the conversion was pretty painless. The only catch was one movie (I tried five as a test-batch) that Vudu claims should work but didn’t.
If not for the “need” to watermark my discs, all of this could be done in a snap online and Walmart could be left entirely out of the equation. I also wonder if Walmart’s perspective on the value of this will be skewed by the perception that no one’s doing it when, in reality, most people can’t if they wanted to.
That brings me to one other confusing bit. Apparently this disc-to-digital feature sports a much deeper library than Vudu’s regular viewing library. Most of the discs I tried were listed as convertible even though most of them aren’t listed in Vudu’s library of watchable films. In other words, some films appear to be licensed only to be viewed if converted but not by any other means. That means Vudu is storing a vast library of digital versions of films that sit idle just in case someone has the DVD to convert. Pretty silly if you ask me.
Given their business model of only offering movies (no TV) that are all pay as you go there’s the realistic issue of having fewer reasons to even launch Vudu in the first place. I certainly won’t start there. My first step will be to look to Netflix. If that fails to locate the movie then I’ll turn to Amazon Prime. Only then, if I’m still awake and interested, will I turn to Vudu. That can’t be a good realization for Vudu’s execs. What they do have is an amazing interface and the quality level is better than anything else similar. If you took their model and interface pushed Netflix content into it I’d likely never leave Vudu and, I believe, it would knock Netflix right out of the running. Without that sort of option it’s like finding yourself in a beautiful ghost town—great to poke around but not worth sticking around.
This being the cloud I still have a lot of concern about just how long “my” movies will be available to me. Reading the fine print it appears I could be out of luck after just one year. That’s a major problem but typical of a solution provided by an industry like the movie industry where the emphasis is on continuing to find ways of getting the consumer to pay essentially for every viewing—or at least as often as possible for the same content.
Lastly there’s the issue of cost. After a couple weeks of use one thing became clear. This service is not inexpensive. Take, as an example, the 1985 movie Young Sherlock Holmes. I can buy the HDX version on Vudu for a mere $17.99. What? I can buy the DVD for $4 online or $8.39 at Walmart. In what world does it make sense to pay $18 for the digital-only version of that same movie especially given all the risks associated with it? Vudu is a better valuation as a rental-only service but only marginally so. With Walmart on board one has to hope the bottom-line-pricing model will take hold here as well.
I’m still hopeful that this could turn into something useful and enjoyable but new car smell is definitely gone.