Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gear: Vudu

This morning I noticed an AP technology article about an interesting device/service combo called Vudu. Vudu was launched back in October and is a streaming/downloading movie service that works through a proprietary set-top device that they sell. The big news today was the announcement that they will start selling high definition movies through their service, beginning with The Bourne Trilogy.

This is a fantastic service in concept. Movie download sites have largely failed because their business model is movies downloaded to a computer to be viewed there. Unless you're among the handful of people that have an HTPC hooked up to a TV, viewing movies through a computer is a less-than-ideal and certainly uncomfortable way to watch movies.

Vudu's model is to sell a device that directly connects your TV to their movie service through your existing broadband internet connection, wired or wireless. This eliminates the clumsy and cumbersome computer interface from the equation. The movie side of the company currently offers 5000 standard definition movies available for rent or sale. They plan to offer more HD movies over time.

I'm impressed in theory with their roll-out of HD movie downloads. I had thought we were years from this being a reality, hamstrung by insufficient internet bandwidth and movie studios still leery of digital distribution. I'd like to see Vudu in action before passing judgment, but my instinct is that movies will either take a day or more to download -- current HD movie encodings are on the order of 20-25GB -- or will be compressed, slightly-below-HD versions.

The possibility of seeing it in action is hampered by the high cost of entry: the set-top device currently costs $399. I find it hard to believe that the device actually costs that much to produce. Apple sells a similar product called Apple TV starting around $275. For a startup desperate for users and likely hemorrhaging money anyway, they should be selling the player at-cost or better, subsidizing part of the cost to get potential users on board. The alternatives for HD movies are much more appealing right now: HD-DVD players for $225 and Blu-ray players for $299, both with much larger selections of movies.

Given the cost and current lack of HD movies, I won't be jumping onboard anytime soon. But I'm hopeful for the future of the concept and wish Vudu the best of luck.

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