Born Yesterday

November 19, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Apparently, Universal Studios doesn't have a high opinion of its customer base. Or, to put it another way, they must think we were all born yesterday. Even if you believe that Universal is jumping on the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" bandwagon, why would anyone buy what they're proposing to sell?

I'm talking about Universal's recent announcement that, beginning in 2006, they are going to make about 100 movie titles available for rent on-line. No pricing structure has been announced, but we're probably looking at between $2 and $5 to download and view a film. Anything higher wouldn't make sense; no one would be interested. Anything lower seems unlikely, although price points of 50 cents to 99 cents might dramatically increase interest.

Universal plans to use peer-to-peer networking to facilitate the downloading. So, after years of decrying the horrors of this method of file sharing, they have reversed course and gotten on board. It's the typical Big Business view of things: technology is evil until they can find a use for it.

The Universal model calls for the full movie download to take less than an hour (it reamins to be seen whether they can deliver on that) - not instant access but quicker than waiting for the NetFlix envelope to arrive, and more convenient that taking a trip to the local video store. Once the movie is downloaded, you can watch it as many times as you want in a 24-hour window. After that, it becomes "locked out" and you have to pay again to get access. The details of this plan are similar to those proposed by a number of distributors looking to get into the on-line market. But here's the new wrinkle: you have to keep the movie on your hard-drive, hogging valuable memory, for 30 days. And for 29 of those 30 days, you can't watch it.

The reason, according to Universal, is that, using peer-to-peer technology, the more people who have a copy of the file on their hard drive, the faster a new download goes. This is true, but it raises two unsavory issues. First, even though I know it's relatively secure, this means Universal will mandate that I allow other people to download a file from my hard drive. Secondly, I'm not permitted to manage all my own files. Assuming DVD quality, about 1% of my 250 Gig hard drive will be compromised for 30 days. Not such a big deal, but what if I download 10 or 15 movies? Or what if I have a smaller drive?

Bottom line: why would anyone in their right mind agree to something with such ugly fine print? Sounds like DIVX all over again (and we all know how successful that was - although at one time there were fears it would damage DVD).

I'll stick to buying DVDs and, for marginal stuff, waiting a few days to get it from NetFlix. On-line downloading is a great idea in theory, but it appears it's going to take a while before someone figures out how to translate the theory to reality. Calling all visionaries: Universal may have a job opening.