I’ve recently been able to take advantage of UltraViolet ‘digital copies’ of movies, and the experience has left me with some thoughts. I promise that this won’t turn into an Anti-DRM rant, beyond a brief mention of the rights you are guaranteed.
Firstly, for those who don’t know what UltraViolet is, a brief explanation. UltraViolet is essentially a service, backed by 5 of the ‘Big 6’ movie studios, that provides a ‘digital locker’ of sorts for digital copies included with select movie DVD/BluRay discs. You buy the DVD or BluRay in the shop, and included in the case is an ‘UltraViolet’ redemption code. After following the instructions you then have a digital copy of the movie in your UltraViolet account that you can then stream or download onto your UV compatible players. There’s also a feature of adding up to five additional accounts under your own to share UV library access.
At least, that’s the ‘non-technical’ version. What the service really is, is a collection of license files. That’s it. The Ultraviolet service itself doesn’t store any movie files, it just stores some DRM information stating that you have the license for this film. The actual files, streaming and downloading services are provided by other ‘UltraViolet Retailers’ – so, for instance a Warner Brothers movie will likely use the Flixster service – both being owned by the same parent company. The ‘UltraViolet’ website ‘stream’ and ‘download’ links merely point you to this other service. Which is an entirely separate account. UV mandates a choice of DRM schemes, and mandates a few select rights (streaming for free for one year, unless geographic restrictions come in to play), all other options are couched in “may” language, and thus might not be applicable at any point.
Because of this… decentralised…. nature, the core of ultraviolet is essentially nothing more than a thin veneer on-top of numerous different digital lockers. And thus is pretty useless. There may be progress in the future – UltraViolet appears to have plans to create ‘branded’ UltraViolet players that let you stream (or play downloaded files) from any of the UV retailers. This unification could actually provide some value.
Now, let’s talk about this in practise.
My first experience was when I bought Les Misérables on DVD. For this film they had also allowed an additional iTunes redemption (separate from the UV redemption – as UV is incompatible with iTunes). iTunes redemption was simple – sign in/up to the iTunes store. Put the code in the redemption box, and done. The UV experience first required me to sign up for a Flixster account, then allow that to create a separate Ultraviolet account, put the code in the box, and it showed up in my UV library, and in my library on the Flixster site. As I only bought the DVD version, I was not surprised when I only received a Standard Definition digital copy. This however is where the cracks start to show. On the UltraViolet site the ‘download’ box is greyed out – implying that I only have streaming rights. The ‘watch’ link on the UV site simply takes me to my Flixster library. It doesn’t start the streaming of the movie – instead I now need to hunt again through my Flixster library to find the actual movie. On the Flixster site however it transpires that I can download the movie – into the Flixster desktop app. It’s this inconsistency of information, and the lack of one click integration that, to me, is UltraViolets biggest weakness.
My second experience was redeeming my ‘Harry Potter Wizards Collection’. This is essentially a giant box containing all 8 movies on DVD, BluRay, and a UV copy of all the movies, along with many special features and exclusives (No iTunes digital copy code however). The UV retailer was again Flixster, although this time I only needed to sign into Flixster, as they had ‘linked’ my UV and Flixster account together. Thus my previous notes about this particular retailer carry through. This time, however, on the UV site it shows that I have the standard and high definition version of all the films. However when I go to the Flixster site, I can find no way to actually obtain, through stream or download, a High Definition version of the films. This is a major problem in my view – and again, highlights how the lack of unification and integration is too apparent. When they’re trying to compete with iTunes for digital distribution, unification is one thing they need to get spot on. To be told in one place that you have the High Definition version, but not be able to get it is frustrating.
If UltraViolet feels like one thing, it really does feel like it was designed by a committee. None of whom wanted to let go of their vested interestes, each of whom has a different idea about what should be allowed, leading to this incredibly weak platform. If their UV Player idea ever takes off, then it would help. But fundamentally, the idea of a system that does nothing but say “John Smith acquired this movie on this date from this UV Retailer” is worthless on the technical side. To the end user it’s a glorified catalogue that doesn’t even provide one click access.
A final note – obviously I haven’t tried any of the other UltraViolet retailers, but I don’t have high hopes of them being any better either.
 – UltraViolet movies cannot be played in iTunes, nor loaded onto native iOS devices. However, UV Retailers (such as Flixster) do have iOS apps and native platform apps that have to separately download/stream the movie each time.