Future of movie downloading needs a good squeeze; compression is key to success
Copyright 2003 Gannett Company, Inc.
November 17, 2003, Monday FIRST EDITION
While the embattled music industry continues to wage war on song swappers, Hollywood cautiously enters cyberspace to deliver feature films to broadband users.
Web services such as Movielink and CinemaNow offer online video-on-demand, or VOD. But along with its efforts to protect intellectual properties, which is handled by embedded digital rights management (DRM) software, the "other" hurdle has always been a technical one — video files that can be more than a thousand times larger than a typical song in MP3 format.
The answer lies in digital video compression, which makes a movie small enough to easily download to a user's hard drive yet still retain high-quality, full-screen video playback on a PC monitor. Some technologies require the entire file to be downloaded before it can be watched, while "progressive downloads" let the consumer start watching the movie after only part of it has been downloaded.
Similar to an MP3 file that is about one-tenth the size of an uncompressed song of the same length, compressed video codecs, or technology that compresses or decompresses data, each reduce the size of a feature-length film to only a few hundred megabytes or so.
This is also considerably smaller than a film on DVD. Video codecs include the MPEG-4 open standard, the more proprietary Windows Media Video (WMV) and DivX, a codec first popularized by software pirates.
Not too long ago, media players supported only their own proprietary codecs, but the industry has moved toward a more open approach, allowing for multiple codecs and support for various "plug-ins" from third-party companies.
The Big Three media players available today are Microsoft's Windows Media Player 9, RealNetworks' RealOne Player and Apple's QuickTime.
"The battle between these media players continues, but it's turning into a battle of codecs, since Apple, then Real, and most recently, Microsoft, have opened up to support multiple codecs," says Kimberly Reed, an editor at DV magazine, a publication for professionals who create digital video.
"These competing companies realize VOD via the Internet isn't going to work unless consumers can use the media player of their choice," Reed says. And because Windows Media Player is already bundled with the world's most popular operating system, Apple and Real had to open up to allow for multiple codecs so they could compete.
MPEG-4 and WMV are the most popular formats for feature films — both offer video and audio quality more or less indistinguishable from the other, Reed says — though Microsoft's codec is the favorite among on-demand e-distributors.
Lydia Loizides, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research, agrees with Reed on consumer adoption: "VOD over the Internet will take off, providing three provisions are met: Acquiring the content must be seamless for consumers regardless of their chosen player or operating system; the speed at which the viewing experience begins; and how painless the DRM process is. If consumers have to go through 18 steps to watch a movie, you'll lose them."
DivX is still the codec of choice for pirated movies on the Net, though the company is trying to convince Hollywood that its high-quality video compression codec can be used for legitimate means. The format became popular a few years ago when pirates found a way to "rip 'n' upload" movies recorded on the disposable DivX discs.
"There is such fear in Hollywood about protecting their content, having seen what happened to the music industry," Loizides says. "Player manufacturers like Microsoft, Real and Apple must provide appealing DRM solutions to the content owners."
Windows Media Player 9 is free to download and use. The RealOne Player and Apple's QuickTime are both free, but each contain "nag screens" to upgrade the product for a fee, which includes exclusive features, content and services.
Here's a quick look at each of the players:
Windows Media Player 9
David Caulton, a lead product manager at Microsoft, believes VOD isn't mainstream yet, though many of the pieces have come into place over the past year. "This includes a really good video and audio codecs — something we're capable of now, such as delivering DVD quality video at 640 × 480 pixels at 30 frames per second, all well under the 1 megabit range for broadband users."
Caulton says its Windows Media Player 9 series also offers faster buffering than past versions for more of an "instant click experience."
VOD will also take off when consumers can watch it on other devices, such as TVs, PDAs and in the car, Caulton says. "
"At the end of the day, most video compression formats — be it Real, MPEG-4 or WMV — look about the same," concedes Richard Brownrigg Jr., a general manager at RealNetworks. "But the advantage of the Real format is our Helix DRM, enabling studios to protect their content."
RealNetworks decided to open source its code a year ago to create a multiformat platform for digital media creation, delivery and playback. Along with making deals with Palm to support — and in some cases, bundle — RealPlayer on its handhelds, RealNetworks' protocols have also been adopted by handset manufacturers such as Nokia and Sprint.
Apple says more than 140 million copies of its latest QuickTime player have been downloaded from its Web servers over the past year. It's also bundled with some digital cameras and enhanced music CDs. But the company isn't positioning itself as a feature-length movie player.
"VOD is not here yet," says Phil Schiller, a senior vice president at Apple. "This is because of limitations in bandwidth, quality, size and digital-rights issues."
Instead, Apple says, its movie trailers site, apple.com/trailers, is the most popular destination of its kind on the Internet. "We've found consumers want shorter, more digestible chunks of video — and studios are happy to give these away," Schiller says. "What the world needs is an open-standard format, so users can use whatever they like — imagine having to buy a different TV to watch different content," Schiller says.