Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Buy Once, Watch Everywhere - Movies in the Cloud

The cloud. You've probably heard it mentioned a lot recently. What is it? Well, I first heard of it in a computing context, where it refers to processing occuring, or files and applications hosted, on remote machines. So, for example, rather than having my documents on my local machine and editing them using a word processor running on my laptop, I upload them to Google Docs (or some other cloud-based hosting service) and edit them from that location, using a web service rather than Word or whatever. It saves local processing - in theory you can do quite demanding things on thin-client, low-spec PCs - and it means you can work or otherwise access your files from other machines - your work PC, an Internet cafe, etc, etc. Sounds great and works well in practise.

So, what happens when we apply this to media? Well, services such as Google Docs and Dropbox are not really setup for media sharing. For a start, storage in the cloud has to be paid for - Docs gives you around 1Gb free and Dropbox gives you double that. You can purchase extra storage, but you're effectively renting it - paying $256 per annum for 1Tb on Docs and $200 for 100Gb on Dropbox. Clearly, it's cheaper to buy a memory stick or passport external hard drive. Both services also limit the file types that can be stored and file sizes. Playback is tricky as these services weren't really designed to stream content, but you can obtain a number of apps for mobile devices which will do this - more or less successfully. Of course, you'll also have to make allowances for your network connection and given the UK's lack of decent wifi provision and patchy 3G service, your ability to stream any content on the go will be severly curtailed. So, essentially, you can upload media to cloud storage and stream it if you are on your home wifi network or in a place where there is a similarly robust connection - a 5-star hotel perhaps, or your office.  Not ideal.

Rather than uploading your own content to those services which are primarily designed to allow you to manipulate documents and photos, you could use one of the many services which are explicitly designed to stream media to your PC or mobile device. I've talked about Qriocity Music Unlimited and Spotify before - services which allow you to stream music to your PC, mobile or home cinema setup. Both services allow you to sync your own music collection, rather than go to the trouble of actually uploading it (although, as mentioned before, I cannot get Qriocity Music Sync to work on Windows 7 64bit). You still have the network restrictions obviously, but these solutions are custom-designed to give you the best experience possible given your connection.

When it comes to movies, the bit rates involved in streaming video reduce the practicality of delivery from the cloud. I personally have only been able to use my Android phone to stream video in a few locations in central London. Working on the south coast, for example, I often struggled to get any kind of 3G connection, less the kind of consistent link necessary to stream even a brief video from Youtube. Where cloud-based storage of film content has relevance is in the services being readied by content owners to stream purchased content to households with multiple screens, used by a group of family members.

Hollywood studios are finally waking up to the fact that consumers really, really do not like DRM - in particular, they hate the way that it restricts the portability of legally-purchased content. Persuading consumers that they should shun torrents has been made very difficult by the sorts of restrictions which mean that a film or music track downloaded on one device is restricted to playback on that device alone, or can only be moved a fixed amount of times under extremely prescriptive circumstances. In a shared or family home, where use of a TV and STB or bluray player in the lounge might be restricted to certain times of the day, content purchased on these machines should be playable on any device in any room in the home. Expanding this concept, it would be an even more enticing proposition if the content was viewable outside the home - so that, for example, a children's film purchased on a net TV could be taken to a relatives home.

Where content is purchased for rental, there will still be time restrictions on viewing. Where the cloud storage and delivery proposition is more compelling is in cases of outright purchase. Content owners have struggled to convince consumers on outright purchase of digital content - especially film. Rental of such content currently outweighs purchase by a margin of 4-to-1. The issues holding back purchase have included these very issues - the resrictions of DRM, the intangibility of the product itself, poor perception of price value compared to physical media, concerns over storage. It is these issues which cloud storage and delivery is designed to resolve.

At this point I should probably stop referring to "the cloud" in this context, as it is not often used. The models and services which are emerging to describe cloud storage and delivery of video media are becoming associated with terms such as "TV Everywhere", "Ultra Violet" and "Studio All Access" - branded solutions offered by ComCast, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem and Disney, respectively. Each of these offer the kind of remote hosting and access described above. Comcast's solution allows cable TV subscribers the ability to access programs from their package online through a web portal, with plans to spread access to other devices, allowing access throughout the home and beyond. Ultraviolet offers a solution for purchased content from a number of sources - from VoD services to packaged DVDs purchased at retail. Such content comes with a code which allows the content to be accessed remotely from a number of registered devices. Content purchased outright is stored remotely in a kind of "digital locker" or "shelf" where the user can build his own library of content, freeing up shelf space at home.

This is also the kind of service being developed by a number of traditional VoD and PPV download services. Acetrax, who run movie portals on a number of connected TVs and bluray players allow users to register their home devices and access the same content on any of them. DivX also use this model - allowing downloaded content to be played via an access code enetered into any DivX registered device.

The concern has to be that the number of services being offered have limited or no interoperability - that your DivX-enabled DVD player may not be Ultra Violet capable and vice versa. It seems that content owners are still reluctant to embrace a true, open model - although Ultra Violet has a large number of members and the potential to succeed as a model for the controlled, managed method of access for hosted video content in the multi-screen home.

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