This winter, Vudu will give every Vudu owner and new buyer copies of both The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, pre-loaded on their boxes in glorious HD. They will also have the opportunity to download The Bourne Ultimatum to own for $25. This is a sign that Vudu—and Universal—are looking past the current format war toward the increasingly inevitable download-only distribution.
Until now, Vudu has just seemed like a better alternative to CinemaNow or Movielink, IP-based video-on-demand that was ready-made for the living room. It still costs money to rent or own movies after you buy the the box, and content selection was limited to (very high quality) standard-def video. But now it's challenging the current state of HD.
Whenever we talk about the format war, there is always a segment of commenters who scream out "Neither!" in favor of the still nebulous digital download scenario. At the beginning of Blu-ray and HD DVD, Hollywood execs talked of a strict code: HD was for packaged disc-locked media only, while downloads had to be standard def. But Xbox Live changed that when it began distributing HD video for rent, and now, it seems, the floodgates are open. Even staunch HD DVD defender Universal seems eager to see what happens when you give customers to take their HD movies straight up, hold the shiny silver disc.
But there are good reasons why this doesn't yet signal the death knell of the disc formats:
• There's high-def and there's high-def. The video quality of Vudu's downloads is 1080i, impressive especially for film content, but a far cry from the 1080p favored by true videophiles. Also, packaged disc content can have higher-resolution audio at this point, too, though that will change as pipes widen.
• $25 for a software-only copy of a movie sounds a little steep, considering you can get the HD DVD of The Bourne Supremacy at Amazon for $20. iTunes had to sell albums for $10 at a time when CDs costs $15 or more. I think $20 is the most Vudu could really charge for HD download-to-own titles.
• Saving an HD movie to your Vudu may put the screws to the HD DVD/Blu-ray debate, but it also starts up another format war, what our own Matt Buchanan labeled the Infinite Format War. For the time being, an HD movies saved on your Vudu is going to stay there, and you won't be able to play it on your Xbox 360. Never say never, but that's the deal for now.