UltraViolet is Hollywood's replacement for the Digital Copy codes bundled with DVDs and Blu-rays, which let you download a mobile-friendly version of the movie you've just purchased on disc. UltraViolet launched in Australia last year with the release of The Hobbit, supported by JB Hi-Fi and EzyFlix locally. At the time it was pitched as phase one of the UltraViolet grand plan, but in 12 months we've seen no progress in Australia, despite new features in the US.
UltraViolet is an industry-wide platform -- minus heavy-hitters Apple and Disney who have decided to go it alone. Unfortunately the complicated structure of UltraViolet leaves all the heavy lifting to the retailers in terms of building the back-end streaming infrastructure, marketing the idea, striking deals with the movie houses and launching new features. It's one of the main reasons why UltraViolet is struggling to compete with slick end-to-end solutions like Apple's iTunes Store. After 12 months only 160,000 Australians have redeemed UltraViolet codes, owning an average of 3.25 movies each.
Right now Australians can redeem UltraViolet codes and then download or stream movies to their smartphones, tablets and computers. There's no UltraViolet app, because UltraViolet is only a ‘rights locker’ which keeps track of which movies you've redeemed. Instead you watch UltraViolet movies through retailers' apps, such as JB Hi-Fi and EzyFlix in Australia. The retailers host the movies, checking your UltraViolet account to see which codes you've redeemed.
In some ways this is a better system than the traditional method of one giant vendor controlling the entire ecosystem and ruling it with an iron fist (yes Apple, I'm looking at you). While the folks at Cupertino are control freaks, at least they focus on a slick user experience and don't choke their content ecosystems to death with crippling DRM and other onerous demands (yes Microsoft and Sony, now I'm looking at you). In the hands of some companies, UltraViolet would already be dead and buried.
Taking UltraViolet out of the hands of the usual suspects seems like a move in the right direction but, without an end-to-end tech giant to drive it, UltraViolet is struggling to build momentum outside the US. Especially as Australian omni-channel retail efforts still lag behind the US when you compare them to giants like Walmart and Best Buy.
Unfortunately there's no way for Australians to watch an UltraViolet movie on their television, even though customers in the US can watch their UltraViolet library on Smart TVs, internet-enabled Blu-ray players and games consoles. The reason why Australia is lagging behind is because it's completely up to local retailers to make this happen. They need to be building their own apps and back-end infrastructure as well as negotiate the rights individually with each movie house.
The same goes for the ‘disc to digital’ program running in the US, which lets customers buy an UltraViolet copy of discs they already own for a few dollars. There's absolutely nothing stopping Australian retailers introducing this service tomorrow, according to Australian UltraViolet Working Group local members Greg Sneddon (executive director of distribution and strategy at Roadshow Television and Digital) and Tim Harris (director of digital and acquisitions at Sony Pictures Entertainment).
The only hold-up with disc to digital in Australia is that the retailers need to sort it out for themselves -- once again negotiating with the movie houses. So far only a handful of US retail behemoths have managed to pull it off.
When it comes to various rights, retailers like JB Hi-Fi and EzyFlix can't even negotiate with the Hollywood movie houses via the UltraViolet consortium. The concept of joint negotiations raises antitrust issues, says Mark Teitell, general manager of UltraViolet's Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem. Even so it's hard to believe that the UltraViolet consortium can't do more to help retailers get their own ecosystem off the ground.
As it is, Australia's retailers need to go door-to-door trying to strike individual UltraViolet deals with the world's most powerful content holders -- media giants who have made it clear they consider Australians to be second-class citizens who are easily fleeced. Resting the future of the ecosystem completely on the shoulders of retailers might make sense in a market like the US, but in Australia UltraViolet is at risk of withering on the vine.
In some ways the structure of UltraViolet makes sense, because it ensures that traditional retail partners aren't cut out of the picture -- whether they're bricks and mortar operations like JB Hi-Fi or new online competitors like EzyFlix. But it also ensures that UltraViolet has an uphill battle against likes of Apple's iTunes and Google Play.
The reasons for this separation of powers within the UltraViolet consortium might be valid, but they mean nothing to end users who don't care who is responsible for what. They just want UltraViolet to work with as many devices as possible. If UltraViolet struggles to compete with tight ecosystems like Apple’s and Google's, then it will never gain the critical mass needed to justify Australian retailers investing in new apps and services. It's a vicious cycle.
This is where Google's tiny Chromecast media stick comes into the picture. It's designed to stream video from smartphones, tablets and computers to your television. Australia's UltraViolet providers are already eyeing off the $49 Chromecast as a cheap and easy way for Australians to finally watch their UltraViolet movies on the big screen and treat digital as an equal to physical media.
Adding Chromecast support to existing apps is certainly easier than building a wide range of new apps to support the mishmash of ‘smart’ home entertainment devices in our lounge rooms. Meanwhile the $49 asking price makes the Chromecast a much more appealing entry point for homes which aren't ready to invest in new home entertainment gear. At that price, local UltraViolet players may well bundle a Chromecast with their service or vice versa.
Behind the scenes Australia's UltraViolet providers are vying to be first to launch on the Chromecast and you can expect announcements sooner rather than later. The biggest hurdle? Negotiating with the movie houses for the right to stream from their Australian apps to the Chromecast.
Having seen what Apple did to the music industry, Hollywood views UltraViolet as its best chance of maintaining control of its own destiny. But the movie houses still insist on playing hardball with the very retail partners that they're relying on to make UltraViolet a success. In a market like Australia it could be a recipe for disaster.