Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/01/13/vod_google_ces/

The year of the Legal Film Download starts CES video frenzy

And she's hooked to the tiny screen...

By Faultline

Posted in Networks, 13th January 2006 13:21 GMT

This year's CSE saw big names committing to the video file download cause. But how realistic is watching films over the internet?

One of the underlying themes of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week was the idea of consumers watching films over the internet. We all know that's not possible right? Right. Not in real time, not unless you use genuine IPTV, complete with beefing up your network, and lots of complicated Quality of Service protocols.

Every attempt at making the general-purpose internet play films results in some awkwardness. Watching through a web browser means the picture’s not big enough or the pixels are too grainy. If you download a file, how do you stop piracy AND allow mobility, and you can’t guarantee the file will arrive in real time and how do you get it reliably to a big screen TV? If you download it to an iPod, the resolution’s not high enough to put it on a big screen. There are many issues and this is a “best bet” market.

So many of the announcements made at CES are not going to work out, but they have big names behind them and this is the genuine start of a huge drive towards finding the winner in video file downloads, which began in earnest the day Apple launched the Video iPod.

Google will launch a commercial video marketplace; Sony is adding films to its Connect online store; a Clear Channel video-on-demand service; another service from 4Flix.Net, and Blinkx has added short films to its video index, making them both searchable and available on-demand. Meanwhile, one of the suppliers to Google, iWatchNow, has launched its own VoD file download service, where you choose ad-supported or ad-free paid for. Finally, in the UK, online DVD rental company LoveFilm, which launched a file download system last month, has added Intel ViiV to the ways in which its films can be viewed.

That’s just in the first week of 2006, there’s a lot more to come.

In total, Intel has agreements with about 60 content partners - including AOL, Google, ClickStar, DirecTV and TV broadcasters NBC and ESPN - to use its Viiv technology in one way or another.

But given that it is the hottest name among all those mentioned, first let’s look at Google. This is what Google Video has all been about and that’s where the marketplace will be launched from. Getting at least one thing right, it says that video content will be available both to rent or to buy and says the sources include a major television network, a professional sports league, cable programmers, independent producers and film-makers.

For that read CBS, the National Basketball Association, Sony BMG and ITN. Perhaps the film-makers will be added later.

"Google video will let you watch lots of high-quality video on the web for the first time. You can search and browse, and we make it fast and easy for you to watch," said Larry Page, Google's co-founder and president. "For video producers and anyone with a video camera, Google Video will give you a platform to publish to the entire Google audience in a fast, free and seamless way."

CBS is committing primetime hits, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Survivor and The Amazing Race, and library classic TV series including I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch and The Twilight Zone, all presented commercial-free.

Google Video will also feature NBA games from this season and from NBA history, including the Playoffs and the Finals, which will be available to fans 24 hours after the contest's conclusion.

We’re not sure of the value of historic news, footage from past events covered by ITN, but they will be available and they will have a passing interest, we’re sure, but this is neither catch-up TV nor compelling pay-TV. Instead, it looks more like an experiment with content that CBS and others are happy to risk, while they find out if this will really work. It is the selection of really old material that, of course, takes all the exposure out of the experiment for CBS and others, but it also means that the experiment is less likely to work.

It’s not as if when anyone does a search at Google they will be reminded to look in the video section (it’s at http://video.google.com) and the Google video search is distinctly less well executed than those from Blinkx, Truveo and other video-focused start-ups.

But the promise of thousands of titles for sale in the Store with more titles added every day does suggest that a lot of backroom work has gone into this, and it’s not quite so half baked and, if at all successful, the big shows will find their way onto the experiment, we’re sure.

Additionally there are smaller, less well-known content producers and these may well be the key to this service. If I was an independent film producer that had my last five films shown in only 20 or so cinemas, I’d be knocking the door down at Google. These small companies include BlueHighways TV, CareTALK, Fashion TV, Here! TV, HDNet, HilariousDownloads.com, Image Entertainment, iWatch- Now.com, Kantola Productions, MediaZone, Plum TV, Porchlight Entertainment, SOFA Entertainment, Teen Kids, Trinity Broadcasting Network, WGBH, Wheels TV, and Wilderness Film India.

Video prices are set by the content provider with no minimum or maximum dollar-limit. Owners also have the choice to offer their content with or without copy protection - enabling them greater control over its distribution.

Content can now be viewed with a new Google player which can be downloaded for free from any playback page. It offers all the traditional playback options (play, pause, stop, etc), as well as a "thumbnail" navigation feature that enables users to browse through an entire video, or go a frame at a time.

iPod and Sony Playstation Portable users will also be able to download and watch any non-copy-protected content from Google Video, and even get it specially optimized for playback on their devices. Google Video Store will be available throughout the world. However, purchasing premium content in the Google Video Store will only be available in the US. Those international video rights tripping us up again, but perhaps Google will go on to set up local versions once it feels it’s got the formula right.

The Sony announcement is pretty bland, almost as if Sony wanted to keep a low profile at CES, and it simply said that Sony will launch an updated version of its Sony Connect online store in March where PSP customers can buy films, videos, TV shows, games and ebooks.

But given that Sony has been talking for more than a year now about digitizing and selling its top 500 films through ISPs, over the internet and in flash-memory format, and that it owns about 8,000 films through MGM, Columbia and Tri-Star, it is enough of an announcement. The problem that Sony has here is that its Connect software isn’t always well received. There are a number of discussion boards and blogs that go on and on about the Connect software that is supposed to work with its Sony Walkman phones.

Connect is now the second most popular music store according to one recent research report, but the phone versions remain buggy, even though it is just a PC download application, which subsequently copies to a phone.

The Clear Channel VoD service that was mentioned at the show to Reuters is about providing access to several thousand music videos from Warner Music and Universal Music, with more labels to come on board, and is part of a strategy to bolster the ailing radio company’s internet presence.

4Flix.Net was, in fact, launched back in November, but has now added paid content at $1.99 each with no Digital Rights Management built in, and has some short form entertainment available for free. There were only 41 films on it when we were looking, ranging from the original Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) to the 1970 version of Jayne Eyre. The concept looks sound enough, but the content is neither plentiful nor compelling.

They are, however, encoded in AVC/H.624 and will go straight onto an video iPod and can be downloaded and played on anything that has Quicktime 7.0, including Mac and Windows PCs and the iPod.

Blinkx, similarly, has added some free short films to its video search site (from the BBC Film Network, LoveFilm, Tiscali and World Cinema Online), but once again, nothing spectacular, and there is a feeling that Blinkx has yet to make its move into paid online delivered content.

The iWatchNow service, launched this week, will, on day one, have more than 3,000 hours of programming with television classics such as the The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, Dragnet, Dick Tracy, Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life, The Jack Benny Show, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger and many original cartoons.

But it is the collection of classic films that the company is pinning its hope on, featuring early first efforts of actors that went on to be big stars. So that means Dustin Hoffman in Madigan's Millions, Kevin Costner in Sizzle Beach USA and Robert DeNiro in the The Wedding Party and The Original Chronicles of Narnia from the BBC made in 1979.

The TV shows, films and music videos cost $0.99 per view with the first step being a $3.99 viewer download, but everything can also be watched for free if you are prepared to watch it with advertisements.

Once again the content is weak and this looks like an experiment, but one which if it takes off can easily get access to more content.

LoveFilm is locked in a battle with Video Island to be the biggest online DVD rental service in Europe, both claiming the number-one spot. Both started in the UK and both have begun buying out their counterparts across Europe. But LoveFilm has gone one better launching a movie download service to UK customers, which will use Intel Viiv technology.

Like so many companies in and around technology, including Intel, LoveFilm doesn’t seem to be able to make the mental leap to bringing downloaded films to the TV. Viiv would be a good idea if the finished product cost about the same as a TV, but instead of working out how to simply download directly onto a TV, Viiv is all about turning the TV into a PC, by making it look like one. We’ll soon find out if this is a good idea when prices for the first devices begin to appear, and they may be as low as $500, in which case we’ll applaud.

Anyway, LoveFilm’s movie download service really has managed to get access to proper content including well-known popular titles such as Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Alexander and Batman, as well as a total of 500 specialist and niche titles for rental for one time viewing at £3 per film, roughly $5.4 each. All of which sounds more convincing even than the Google offering and more of a threat to the Cinema than to the humble TV.

LoveFilm claims to have more than 300,000 customers to its online DVD rental service, which means it has an existing marketplace to push the online concept to.

As we carry on through 2006 expect many more entries into the online video download market.

Copyright © 2006, Faultline

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