Online video

One of the things it’s clear to me I don't understand is where the world of video is going. There seem to be a lot of different options floating around right now, and they all seem to have good ideas, and yet all have pretty obvious failings that mostly let us know that this is not where things are going to come to a rest.

Apple & iTunes

ITunes has been great for me for music. I don’t watch music videos, and only occasionally to the radio, so I am admittedly not a major music connoisseur. However, there have been many times while watching Scrubs or the like that I find I enjoy the song playing. A quick search on Google to match the lyrics finds me the name of the song, and another quick search on the iTunes Music Store finds me the song. And if I’m lucky, there’s a DRM-less version (I don’t want to be able to copy it all over the place, I just want to be able to play it on my TiVo without having to burn it to a CD first. And maybe TiVo will release an update someday so I don’t have to downgrade it before I do that.)

The video part of it is completely different. I’ve tried some of the free episodes they release, and have a few video podcasts, but there are two aspects that hold me back.

When it comes to movies, most of the time I want to rent, not buy. And if I did buy, I still want a physical copy of it. The quality is worse than a DVD, and while it’s cheaper, it’s not cheaper by much. Plus, sometimes I actually like some of the extra content that comes with the DVDs.

The TV shows are a slightly different problem. Again, I’d rather do something like rent them, since I only want to watch them once. However, I already pay for cable, so clearly I have a price. The truth of the matter is I only have a few shows I watch. If the cost of the season passes were maybe half of what it is now, many people like myself might be sorely tempted to ditch cable altogether and go for a la cart—not for individual channels, but for individual shows.

Of course, DRM here becomes a problem. The only place I could watch it on would be my laptop. I could watch it on a video iPod or an Apple TV, but none of the iPods in my house play video, and again, I have a TiVo.

Channel Offerings

I should point out that I’ve only ever played around with NBC’s take on this, and a couple of offerings on the Sci Fi channel. This also seems to have a lot of potential. I only started getting in to the TV show Heroes halfway through, and needed to catch up. Well, NBC was offering every episode online, with some intermittent advertisements, for free. This let me catch up quickly, and let me have half a clue of what was going in with all the different characters. The Sci Fi Channel has a similar offering, with the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica available online, which is especially useful for people who don’t get the Sci Fi Channel. So what’s the problem? Again, one is tethered to their computer, which makes the television a bit of a waste. Also, what’s offered is somewhat uneven. Only the most recently aired episode of Battlestar is available online, and as we speak, the first season of Heroes is gone. Plus, NBC is not even with their offerings; Scrubs only has a 2-minute review of the episode.

Amazon Unbox and Google Video

So now we are getting to the whole reason why I decided to write this. Amazon offers a service called Amazon Unbox. I have used their movie rental service exactly once, and it is not entirely clear to me if I ever will again. There a bunch of things to like. For one, I can order a video when I am not home, and have it download to my TiVo. Some of the movies are cheaper than at Blockbuster, and the rest are the same price. Further, I am always guaranteed a movie is available. The last great thing (to me) is that rented movies can be watched up to thirty days after ordering it.

So what is th problem? First off, downloads are slow. Some of this Amazon has no control over, but since my TV is not HD or anything, I would certainly be willing to get a lower quality version (at a cheaper cost, of course), in order to get a better download speed. I made the mistake of ordering the movie I wanted to watch the day I ordered it, which naturally meant I could not watch it that day.

The other problem is another bizarre DRM issue. Although you can have a video on the TiVo for 30 days, it will automatically be deleted 24 hours after you start watching it. I rarely am able to get my whole family coordinated enough to have all of us watch all of it in one sitting. Thus, even if I could live with the download problem, Amazon Unbox still ends up being unacceptable.

Another offering from Amazon Unbox is the ability to buy movies. To make this “nicer”, you can leave your videos with them and re-download them whenever you want. Given the problems I had in downloading a movie once, this is a major non-possibility for me. But the thing that clinches it for me is Google ending the sale of video from their Google Video service. As noted in this Ars Technica article, anyone who had bought video from Google will soon lose the ability to watch it. It appears that Amazon is using PlaysForSure, so one does not necessarily need to worry about just the demise of Amazon, but the more likely demise of PlaysForSure. Microsoft conveniently is not using that DRM for their Zune, so for how long can we expect it to be supported?

The future of online video

So what is the conclusion of all this? Hopefully, you don’t think I have the answer to that, since I said from the start I have no idea. One thing that seems unsustainable is the current state of DRM. The problems with Google Video and potential problems with Amazon Unbox would be much less dramatic if people were allowed to keep a copy of the movie themselves that was guaranteed to be usable forever. Clearly, I would like to be able to do other things, such as make backup copies, but right now anything would be an improvement. But in the end, I find myself wondering why it is content providers are actively working to make it harder for me to watch their stuff.

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