There has been a lot of action in the movie download business, but most offerings still miss the mark. Amazon Unbox and Apple TV stand out as exceptions--here's why.
Last week U.S. video rental chain Blockbuster bought film download service Movielink. The move is part of Blockbuster's campaign to regain ground lost to movies-by-mail rival Netflix, which just launched its own movie download service.
Blockbuster and Netflix will hardly be fighting this battle alone. Amazon recently launched its Unbox movie service, and Microsoft just rolled out a movie download service for its Xbox 360. Other competitors like Sony and AOL are also prepping video services. And of course there is Apple's iTunes, which dominates the video-download market.
I really want to get excited about these developments, but I just can't muster the enthusiasm. I'm convinced that downloads will inevitably displace other forms of video delivery, but I'm not impressed with what I've seen so far. One major problem is that most services have rather limited selection. The other big problem is that most of these services only work on a specific device—most often the PC used to download the movie. For example, the Netflix service only works with a Windows PC running Internet Explorer.
My personal situation is a perfect example of what's wrong with today's services. I own a TiVo and have a Netflix subscription. TiVo can download movies, but only through Amazon's Unbox. Thanks to pointless copyright issues, I can't get Netflix movies to play in the living room.
Until it gets easier to watch movies in the living room, I don't see much success for the movie services. Happily, help is on the way, thanks to devices like Apple TV that bridge the PC-TV gap. As more of these devices become available, I might finally have a reason to get excited about movie downloads. Until then, I'll count on my cable service when I want movies on demand.