The super-secret video store in a box, Vudu, had its coming out party this weekend. One of the things that piqued everyone's interest—aside from the 5,000 movies that will be available on demand from seven Hollywood studios and a gaggle of indie distributors—is that the box will work on a peer-to-peer style distribution network based on 42 patents owned by the company. The Vudu network, explained, and Robert X. Cringely's mis-prognostication, after the jump...
The Vudu hard drive will be automatically pre-loaded with the beginning portions of several different movies. The choice of which movies to send down the ethernet pipe will be based on predictions about what you are most likely to watch (new releases, for example). That media will also be seeded, via the Vudu network, to other boxes. That makes it much easier for the network to meet the potential demand for a new release. This would work with both full-length features or just the beginning of a movie. By seeding the first, say, 30 minutes of a film, Vudu can ensure instant access while the rest of the film is downloaded. And that download will be much faster thanks to the peer-to-peer distribution system. This could also reduce Vudu's operational costs significantly. Instead of paying a huge sum of money to a company like Akamai, which is what Apple does in order to quickly send you media files, Vudu relies on the network to share its load. The catch is that Vudu has to sell untold thousands of boxes to make this work—which at least ensures that the cost of the box will stay in the $300 range.
PBS' resident tech-head Robert X. Cringely described all of this in a column he wrote back in February.
Say Disney releases Cars 1.5 — a direct-to-DVD release expected to sell millions of copies in its first few days. There is no way iTunes could even hope to participate in a launch like that simply because there isn't enough bandwidth at a good price — or any price. Even BitTorrent would have troubles handling a small part of such a launch until enough seeds were populated and running. But what if the movie was effectively pre-seeded — loaded over a few days on a distribution tree of thousands of Apple TV boxes which could then deliver the movie locally at high speed if purchased. Or if not purchased the seeded copies could still work together to serve other Apple TVs on the same ISP subnet.
Cringely's readers tore him to pieces after the column appeared. The reason? Apple TV is more like an iPod for TV and doesn't have any peer-to-peer characteristics. But the above description fits Vudu almost perfectly. I've always thought Cringely had some excellent but unnamed sources. He's right about too many things too often to be working solo. I'm guessing that Cringely got tipped off about Vudu, but he didn't have all the details. When Jobs announced his plan for a set-top box, Cringely connected the dots—but ended up with the wrong product.
What do you think?
Finally, lots of people have been complaining that there are too many boxes cluttering the entertainment cabinet, and that Vudu is going to be the latest victim of the glut. But this argument has been proven wrong time and again in consumer electronics. There were plenty of great MP3 players on the market by the time the iPod came out, scads of hip cellphones available before the RAZR, and six gaming consoles to choose from when along came the Wii. Vudu is going to be priced attractively. Add in a killer user experience and this box could live up to all the big sentences Brad Stone wrote on Sunday.