Switched On: Vudu starts on its to-dos

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.

Imagine a history in which broadcast television programming was not sent directly to television sets. Rather, it was sent to another, more expensive device in the home with a smaller screen. If you paid $40 per month, you could access at best only about 10 percent of the shows you really wanted. These shows were available on demand, but under ideal conditions needed a few minutes before you can start watching them. Furthermore, to watch them in the comfort of your living room, you had to rely on a slow, unreliable connection between the box and the TV set.

This bleak situation characterized the state of much broadband video at the debut of Vudu earlier this year. Vudu's $400 glossy black box sports a curvy perimeter that is a bit taller than an Apple TV. It delivers instant access to about 5,000 movies (with capacity for double that amount) using a slick and sophisticated combination of local caching and distributed computing. Rent or buy the movie and it starts playing. Vudu just introduced its first high-definition movies -- the Bourne movie trilogy, offering the high-definition media-free version of The Bourne Ultimatum for sale for the first time.

The physical version of that movie is available exclusively on HD-DVD, but with Vudu you don't have to worry about the alliances of studios or video rental chains. The company has struck deals with all major studios and the Vudu device is hundreds of dollars less than dual-format high-definition disc players from Samsung and LG Electronics. On the other hand, nearly all of its content is more of a quality match for the dirt-cheap and universally-supported standard DVD player today.

Vudu requires a broadband Internet connection and in most cases some kind of home network if only to find its way back to the cable or DSL modem that may not be where your TV is; it has a standard Ethernet jack and no Wi-Fi. Its antenna is for use with its RF remote control; since Vudu requires no physical access in normal operation, it can be placed behind a cabinet.

Vudu's reliance on broadband largely sets it apart from its closest predecessor, MovieBeam, which is reported to be shutting down this week. MovieBeam, which used the odd combination of a picture frame-sized antenna to acquire movies and a mandatory phone line for account validation, held a rotating supply of about 100 movies -- including a few HD titles -- in its clean if sparse user interface. However, like Vudu, MovieBeam offered instant access to its rentals -- a subtle but important factor when competing against other movie acquisition methods. Vudu movies begin even faster than DVDs with with their federal warnings and onerous mandatory trailers.

For the short time both have been going, almost all of MovieBeam's titles have been available on Vudu. Another key difference has been in responsively navigating Vudu's diverse catalog. Vudu's minimalist twisted-Figure 8 remote relies heavily on a scroll wheel that brings a Blackberry-like efficiency to most list-driven tasks, although the filtering interface could be streamlined. Like many TV devices these days, its user interface is designed for a wide screen, but scales down pretty well for those stuck in a 4:3 world.

Regarding the demise of MovieBeam, a competitor's misfortune might be good news, but Vudu's box -- like MovieBeam's and even Amazon's Kindle -- serves almost exclusively to sell the consumer content, a difficult proposition but one not dissimilar from the DVD player. Vudu offers an order of magnitude more on-demand choices than most digital cable systems offer today, but fiber-hungry telcos promise that their on-demand choices will soon rival what Vudu can provide.

Vudu already does a good job of linking movies with the same actors or directors, or those which are in the same genre. To bolster its position, the company plans to roll out more community-focused service features in 2008, which could help it capitalize on the kind of recommendations in Amazon and other online venues. This week, the company also started experimenting with selling TV show episodes on the device, with 24, Family Guy and Arrested Development among the new options. Closer ties to PC-based media are also on Vudu's radar.

While Vudu has embraced time-shifting, it is has shunned place-shifting, even for content you have purchased. The RF remote makes control via Slingbox difficult and the product offers no access to its catalog or purchased movies via the PC or portable video players as subscription service Vongo does.

Also, one of the few MovieBeam features that Vudu lacks is supplemental content -- short featurettes like those one might find on a DVD. To better compete with the interactivity of HD-DVD and Blu-ray players, this is an area that Vudu should explore. Finally, as we have seen with these high-definition disc players, price counts for a lot when competing with upconverting DVD players that deliver very good video quality and excellent selection in the minds of most consumers.

Nevertheless, while the old Qwest commercial video of a hotel offering ubiquitous cinematic options has still not been realized, at least Vudu doesn't require you to travel to a remote desert flophouse in order to enjoy what's there. Already, there is enough video available via the device at any point in time to consume well over a year. Vudu's catalog is broad enough to appeal to a wide range of tastes, and is a significant step toward the ideal scenario of having any movie at your fingertips.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.