More than a year ago, major Hollywood studios all got in line behind Ultraviolet, a project designed to meld the world of retail DVD and Blu-ray sales with streaming content. Now, the first title to be distributed with Ultraviolet support is hitting the streets in the form of Warner Bros. Horrible Bosses—but very little of the promised infrastructure to support Ultraviolet is in place, and, for the the time being, the studios are handling it on their own.
The idea behind Ultraviolet seems simple: when customers by a DVD or Blu-ray disc at retail, it comes with a code for that enables customers to tap into a streaming digital version of the same content from virtually any device, whether that be a TV, a tablet, a smartphone, an Internet-connected TV, game console, or set-top box. Enter the code into an online Ultraviolet library, and users can get their content in whatever format works best for whatever device they’re using. Up to six people in a household can access a single Ultraviolet library.
There’s just one problem: all that back-end support doesn’t exist yet. Warner Bros., the first studio out the door with Ultraviolet support, will be directing users to Flixster, an online movie sharing database company it acquired earlier this year (along with Rotten Tomatoes). Flixster is available for PCs along with Android, BlackBerry, and iOS devices—there’s no support for consoles, Internet-connected TVs, or set-tops. Sony Pictures is due to start shipping its first Ultraviolet titles in December with The Smurfs, but customers won’t be able to redeem those codes at Flixster—instead, they’ll have to go to a separate service operated by Sony. And if customers just want to buy titles for their Ultraviolet account and eschew the discs entirely? They can’t. Not yet anyway—Ultraviolet doesn’t have any retail capability.
Although Amazon, Apple, Sony, Wal-mart (via Vudu) and others have jumped into the online video arena, so far consumers haven’t strongly embraced the idea of buying digital video, while subscription streaming services like Netflix have resonated, especially for content like TV episode that consumers are less likely to want to own forever. Interoperability is seen as a key feature for digital video purchases: most consumers don’t want to buy a digital version of a movie and have it work for a few years on a few devices, then have to buy it again to work for a few more years on a few other devices. They’d like to buy it once and have it work on everything forever. Ultraviolet holds the promise to bridge that gap—but only if it can get its infrastructure operating and convince consumers the service is worth their money. And Ultraviolet will have plenty of competition from cloud-based services from the likes of Apple and Amazon, and Disney is reportedly working on its own platform-agnostic digital content locker.