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For all the recent missteps Netflix has made, there's a reason it had such a meteoric rise to success over the last few years. By working to get their service available on devices such as Blu-ray players, HD-TVs, Xbox 360s, and PS3s -- damn near everything with a plug on it, really -- Netflix provided the single most important quality many consumers look for when it comes to entertainment: convenience. You didn't have to know anything about tech or how it all worked; you just pulled up your queue on your device, selected a movie, and pressed play. Easy as pie. That same desire for convenience and simplicity has driven the rise of the omnipresent rental kiosks such as Redbox, as well as the various on-demand services. It's been great news for the busy consumer who wants as few obstacles as possible between them and their entertainment. It hasn't, however, been good for the studios.
The New York Times posted a story this week examining the problem, and the less-than-ideal solution Warner Bros. has come up with. As the NYT explains, rentals from services such as Netflix provide a much narrower profit margin for studios. Naturally, the studios would much prefer you buy the film outright. Unfortunately, that's happening less these days, both because of the convenience factor of Netflix and the like, and because money is tight for most consumers. Why buy a Blu-ray when you only plan on watching the movie once, or when you know you'll likely be able to find it streaming or rent it later if the mood hits you again? Or, even worse for the studios, when you can pirate a digital copy?
Warners' current solution is the movie-storage service UltraViolet, combined with the social network Flixster, which Warners bought for $75 million last May. The service is free; when you buy a physical Blu-ray/DVD copy of a movie, it will include a code that allows you to claim a digital copy of the movie, accessible via the UltraViolet service. The goal there is for UltraViolet to allow you to watch that digital copy via any computer, mobile device, or net-connected TV.
Unfortunately, that assumes UltraViolet is working the way it's supposed to. While it's still early for the service, the NYT article cites several analysts who worry Warners is rushing the service to market before it's ready for prime-time. There is some evidence that this may indeed be a problem -- a post on tech blog TechDirt points out numerous Amazon customer reviews complaining about UltraViolet problems ranging from error messages to unresponsive media players to bad customer service.
It remains to be seen if customers will embrace UltraViolet in the long run, but making a bad first impression for a service that already has an uphill battle to get customers to understand exactly how it works in the first place...that's probably not ideal. And it's certainly going to make it that much harder to lure people away from the rental mentality and the convenience of Netflix and the like.