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Bugs & Fixes: No green light for UltraViolet

UltraViolet is the movie industry's latest attempt to answer the burning question: How can we make money selling movies, without losing all of our profits to pirated copies or ceding all control to Apple?

I gave UltraViolet a spin over the past two weeks--via two movies that I purchased (the Blu-ray version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and a DVD of Crazy Stupid Love). While I see advantages to its approach, I still give the technology a thumbs down overall. UltraViolet will improve over time, but I doubt it will improve enough to change my overall assessment. For now, it remains too complicated, cumbersome, and buggy.

In brief, UltraViolet works like this: Purchase a qualifying movie, most likely a DVD or Blu-ray disc, although it could be a digital copy. With luck, you can then play it anywhere--on your television, on your computer, on your iOS devices--all without having to make any additional purchases or sync across devices. If your initial purchase was a digital copy, you may even be able to get a free DVD mailed to you (although this is not universally supported yet).

Although UltraViolet-supported files are copy-protected, UltraViolet is not precisely a new form of digital rights management. Rather, it is a means of cutting across existing forms of copy protection to give users unified access, allowing them to play their media in any supported environment. In theory, Apple could modify iTunes so that you could play UltraViolet movies from within the app (but I don't expect this to happen).

So far, this sounds pretty good. I especially welcome the concept of "pay once, watch anywhere." Unfortunately, this is yet another case of the devil showing up in the details. Let's take a closer look.

If you start with physical media (as I did), and assuming your disc purchase has the "Instant Streaming with UltraViolet Digital Copy" sticker on it, your first step is to locate the UltraViolet redemption code inside the box. You now go to the site listed and enter the redemption code. For example, for Crazy Stupid Love, you would go to http://ultraviolet.flixster.com/crazystupidlove. From here, if this is your first visit, you will be directed to set up two separate accounts: a Flixster account and an UltraViolet account, each with their own username and password. The UltraViolet account is what permits access to the movie; Flixster is a delivery mechanism. Ultimately, you'll be able to choose other methods of delivery. For now, it is pretty much just Flixster.

If you've had success to this point, you should be able to stream the movie in your web browser via the Flixster website. But don't get too excited. Streaming here requires that a recent version of Adobe Flash Player be installed. If not, you'll get a "plug-in failure" error. In addition, the streamed version (at least of Crazy Stupid Love) was a mediocre-quality standard-definition copy (with lots of undesirable pixelation).

Fortunately, there is a better alternative--you can download the movie to your drive. Not only does this give you a higher quality version of the movie, but it allows you to view the movie even when you are not connected to the Internet. However, before you can watch a downloaded copy, you'll have to do some additional work. In particular, you'll need to install both the Flixster Collections app and Adobe AIR. Flixster Collections offers several features beyond access to UltraViolet movies, but they are not relevant to the topic here. With the software installs done, launch the Collections app and log in to your Flixster account (you can remain logged in for up to two weeks). You can now access, download and watch the movie.

If you have other Macs, you can do the same thing on each computer--up to a maximum of five downloads. Getting this to work for me, however, had its own hassles. After getting everything up and running on my Mac Pro, I went to my MacBook Air. When I launched the Collections app on the Air, the movies that had been approved on my Pro did show up correctly. Despite this, there was no option to stream or download the movies. After failing with several potential fixes, I decided to essentially start over: I selected to re-enter the redemption code. This did the trick. I didn't actually have to re-enter the codes as it turned out. Instead, I was prompted to login to my Flixster account again. After doing so, I immediately had the desired access to my movies.

I had similar account hassles at several other points. On one occasion, the Flixster website claimed my password was invalid. However, if I arrived at the same login page via a different URL, the password was accepted. Overall, the whole experience has a beta software feel to it.

What about playing UltraViolet-supported movies on an iPhone or iPad? Yup, you can do this. For me, this worked without any difficulty. I just launched the Flixster app (I already had it installed, as I use it to check movie showtimes) and once again logged in to my Flixster account. From the app, I could now view my movies either via streaming or downloading.

In the end, watching UltraViolet movies required that I first set up two accounts, download a viewing application on my Macs (and another on iOS devices, if I didn't already have it), install Flash Player and Air on my Macs, download each movie multiple times (to get the better quality version), and put up with numerous login complications. And I haven't even mentioned using the UltraViolet website to add additional family members to your account (needed if you want each member to have their own login) and add additional viewing devices (a feature that is not even up and running yet).

That's why I would prefer the movie companies to revert back to offering an iTunes redemption codes in their DVDs and Blu-ray discs (as they had been doing for selected movies prior to the arrival of UltraViolet). The iTunes approach is simpler and more reliable. With iTunes, I lose the ability to instantly stream movies across all supported devices, but that's a trade-off I'm happy to make.

A postscript: I emailed Flixster's customer support regarding my disappointment with UltraViolet. To my pleasant surprise, they immediately provided me with an iTunes redemption code.

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