Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reeking of Fail: Flixter and UltraViolet

The goals of the UltraViolet Digital Rights Management system are admirable. The system aims to provide buy once, watch anywhere functionality. So far however, the system has been far from living up to this promise. Currently you can only view UltraViolet content on a Windows PC, Mac, iOS, or Android based mobile device. I can't find a single set top box that currently supports UltraViolet. Of the two UltraViolet titles that I've purchased, both are available on Amazon's Instant Streaming and iTunes, so Hollywood's own attempt at streaming video isn't even up to par with it's competition. Before even opening the box UltraViolet is off to a bad start.

Before going further, I would like to comment on my previous experience with digital copies provided with the purchase of a new Blu-Ray or DVD title. Most of them that I've found include a special digital copy disk an a redemption code. You put the special digital copy disk into your PC or Mac, and run the application on the disk. The application asks for your redemption code, and with the two-factor authentication of the special disk (something you have) and the redemption code (something you "know," also a one time password) you are given the coice of downloading your digital copy through iTunes or downloading a Windows Media File. (Again, this is from memory, there may have been other options.) The process was simple, strait forward, and the result was I got a digital copy to use on my iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or play on my Mac or Windows PC. Downside, the digital copy was not a HD version (at least on iTunes) even if the digital copy came along with a Blu-Ray disc.

UltraViolet attempts to be similar, but without the special digital copy disc. With the rise in popularity of computers like the MacBook Air that don't have an optical drive eliminating the digital copy disk makes sense. The trend of computers without an optical drive is going strong. The UltraViolet card in the package directs you to a redemption URL. Currently Flixster is the only option. In order to redeem your UltraViolet movie, you first have to register a Flixter account. As you work your way through the redemption process you are prompted to log into or create your UltraViolet account. What? We need a second account?!? I feel your average consumer is going to find this confusing, though on the technical side it does make sense. If Flixter goes out of business, or if another company wants to create a service that competes with Flixer, the consumer can integrate the new service with their UltraViolet account and access their content through Flixter or the hypothetical new product. In practice, I found this frustrating. UltraViolet doesn't seem to offer an OpenID or similar Single Sign On technology, which would make much more sense than having separate accounts for Flixter and UltraViolet. Just sign into any UltraViolet compatible service with your UltraViolet account and get access to your content. It only makes sense with the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter which offer Single Sign On methods. To add to my frustration of having separate Flixter and UltraViolet accounts, the two websites have completely different password policies. Flixter accepted the nice secure password with mixed case letters, numbers, and special characters generated by LastPass, but UltraViolet would only accept letters and numbers. UltraViolet should dictate some policy and standards to their partners such as Flixter, and they should update their own authentication technology to allow for more secure passwords.

Once the accounts were created, the redemption process smoothed out somewhat. I entered my code for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2", and was presented with the option to download an iTunes or Windows Media file, just like the old digital copy service. The link for the iTunes copy didn't work for me, and the page promptly disappeared and I have not been able to find it again. The only option to download is to install Adobe Air and the UltraViolet player, however the UltraViolet website then tells me that the title is unavailable to download until December 20th. No year is given, so I can only assume this means 2012. Again, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is available to purchase and download in the iTunes store so I don't understand the download restriction in the UltraViolet system. When I redeemed my second UltraViolet title (Justice League: Doom) I haven't had similar quirks, though the download a copy option on the UltraViolet website again is not available until December 20th.

One side note on the UltraViolet website. If you think going to www.ultraviolet.com would bring you to the UltraViolet web site, you would be wrong. The actual website is www.uvvu.com. Again, I don't understand why a company delivering services over the internet would name their product without doing a simple whois check to see if the domain name is available, and if the domain is not available attempt to acquire the domain in question before going to market. This is yet another inexplicable failing for an industry that should have the resources to do this properly.

Once you have your accounts on Flixter.com and uvvu.com created, you would think entering your redemption code would be enough. Not so, first you have to search for or pick your UltraViolet title. Again I don't understand this. We have UPC codes on every product available in every retail store, so a redemption code should be enough to identify the title you have purchased as well as validate your purchase of the product, but it seems this is not the case for UltraViolet content.

So at this point, we have created a Flixter.com account, created a uvvu.com account, located our movie on the UltraViolet website, and now we're ready to enter our redemption code. Once you've gotten this far the process goes smoothly. If the code is valid, the title appears in your UltraViolet locker and you can stream the movie to your Mac or PC, or stream or download the title on your iOS or Android device. Currently there is no support for BlackBerry, WebOS, and other iOS and Android competitors. The exclusion of declining platforms such as BlackBerry and WebOS is understandable, but having no Windows Phone 7 option is concerning.

On to streaming. The UltraViolet website will direct you back to Flixter to stream your movie. When I was bounced back to Flixter's site, I was given the option to get a free movie to get your collection started! Well this was a nice bonus. The catch was you have to allow Flixter to post to your Facebook wall. I allowed this, but I set the post to be only visiable to me as at this point I can't find any reason at all to recommend Flixter and UltraViolet to my friends and family, and this choice was well justified. The site will not proceed bast the "Accept Gift" button in Google Chrome, and I could not redeem my free movie gift. I disabled Ghostery, AdBlock Plus, added the URL to allowed cookies, and still no luck. Turned out enabling 3rd party cookies in Chrome (not the default setting, I had disabled this earlier) fixed this. After that I was presented with the confusing option to allow Flixter to manage my UltraViolet account, and given the option to allow Warner Brothers access to my UltraViolet account for 1 year, 6 hours, or not at all. This apparently is to allow Flixter to show me UltraViolet content without having to log into my UltraViolet account. Finially the Single Sing On option! At this point I think I've entered my UltraViolet user name and password four or five times despite checking the "Remember Me" option on the uvvu.com website. At this point I would think the average consumer would have given up on the UltraViolet system, but I will continue on bravely. So Flixter has taken over my Facebook account, and I have successfully redeemed my free movie. In addition to "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" and "Justice League: Doom" I now have "He's Just Not That Into You" in my movie collection. Fabulous!

Did you note that I have not yet gotten to streaming my movie? I definitely have, and I'm rather annoyed.

So I click on "Justice League: Doom" and then Watch Now in the theory that an animated movie will highlight any quality issues with Flixter's delivery of the video stream. As the first frames of the movie play I make note of the SD icon in the lower right hand corner of the video player. So no HD stream. Expanding the video to full screen shows that it is highly compressed. At this point I could have downloaded the movie from iTunes (of note, the iTunes version of Justice League: Doom and Harry Potter are not averrable in HD.) Just for comparison I logged into Netflix and started playing "Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers." The Netflix stream started in just a few seconds compared to Flixter's 30 seconds of buffering, and the Nexflix player showed that it was indeed streaming a HD version of the content. A quick check of the other tittles in my Flixter collection. Harry Potter and "He's Just Not That Into You" both came up as SD streams, though the Flixter player did consider starting a HD stream of He's Just Not That Into You for a few seconds, just long enough of me to take note of the HD icon before it switched to SD. If I wanted to watch YouTube quality video on my laptop I'd go to YouTube, thanks but no thanks Flixter. By the way Flixter, YouTube offers me HD streaming video as well.

Not willing to put up with the lack of quality on my laptop, I'm going to give streaming to my iPhone a try. First step, install the Flixter iOS app on my iPhone. Log into Flixter on my iPhone. My UltraViolet movies are available for streaming. Curiously, I can log into Netflix and view my Netflix queue in the Flixter app. I haven't explored this, but worth noting is that the UltraViloet movies (and a good number of WB titles in general) are not available on Netflix Streaming. And is it really necessary to serve up iADs in your application Flixter? I am using your application to watch content that I have paid for!

Before the movie starts streaming, Flixter informs me that my phone is jailbroken and I'll have to install a clean version of iOS to use Flixter streaming. This is the first time I've run into an app using jailbreak detection. A quick install of xCon from the Cydia store gets rid of this annoyance, and my movie is streaming. The stream started much faster on iPhone than it did on my Mac, both my Mac and iPhone are on the same wifi network. The first time I started the stream it was badly pixelated. Like the emailed video you got from your 80-year old Grandma pixelated. I tried again about an hour later and the video quality was acceptable for an iPhone screen, it even looked better than what was displayed on my Mac.

One more thing to check, downloading the movie. On my Mac (and presumably on Windows) you have to first have Adobe Air installed, then you can install the Flixter Collections App. Personally I have yet to find a use for Adobe Air on either Mac or Windows, so I'm going to skip this. At this point I'm really not in the mood to download two more pieces of software that I didn't really want in the first place just to watch my movies. All I wanted was a digital copy of the movie that I can play via iTunes.

Back to the iPhone. The Flixter app will let you download a movie so you can watch it offline. A digital copy wouldn't be of much use if you couldn't watch it on your mobile device while traveling in a commercial airliner for example. Unfortunately, this is your only option for downloading the movie. Instead of giving you a file that will appear in the built in media player for iOS, the movie downloads into the Flixter app and you have to use the Flixter app to play your movies. While this is a limitation of iOS sandboxing more than anything, my feeling at this point is this is how Flixter would be forced to implement content downloading by the studios behind UltraViolet anyway. This sucks because it means you have to leave the Flixter app open on your iOS device while your content downloads, because Apple will only allow apps to download in the background for a few minutes or so. So you can't user your iOS device while your UltraViolet content downloads. If you purchased your content through the iTunes store on the other hand your content would download in the background and you could continue to use your iOS device. I suspect this limitation doesn't exist in Android devices as it's a limitation of the iOS platform, but I don't have one of those to confirm that. The file for "Justice League: Doom" weights in at 477 MB, so I'm obviously downloading a SD version of the content. Also the download is not going as quickly as I would expect for my Internet connection speed.

Overall my impression of the UltraViolet Digital Rights Management system are, well to say crap would be an insult to the perfection I flush down the toilet on a daily basis. The quality of the streams is low, the experience is poor, you are pestered by advertising on the Flixter web site and iOS application. All for content you paid for, and in my case, I paid for a Blu-Ray HD version of the content, but I can only access SD versions of the digital copy. I am not impressed. Flixter and UltraViolet aren't even worthy of my almost there tag. UltraViolet has a large gap to close before it can be considered competitive with it's competition.

3 comments:

Andrew Zbikowski said...

I tried watching an entire moving, streaming and downloaded, on my iPhone a couple days after posting this. The video appeared fine, but the audio was so bad. Distortion, peaking, whatever an audio engineer would call it, throughout the entire moving for nearly every line. Hey studios, there's this wonderful tool out there called Handbreak that can encode your movie for mobile platforms. Whatever you're currently using doesn't seem to be working all that well...

Michael Jeffers said...

It is so sad that a multi-billion dollar industry lacks the resources needed to generate functional security software that meshes well with every device or OS that a paying customer may own. What's mopre sad is that I can purchase a blu-ray set and be lead to believe I can "easily" access other features online to enjoy the contents in a better fashion, but reality clearly shows that little effort has been given to actually providing this service. In short, my time is worthless as I have absolutely nothing better to do with the next 3+ hours of my life than to troubleshoot this software with the hope that I can possibly enjoy the product I had already paid for.

We should open a department store filled with only the raw materials needed to generate the goods that other department stores already sell and expect our customers to purchase these raw materials and produce the goods themselves. Minimal work = maximum profits. Hooray capitalism!

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