State of The Infinite Format War: Get Ready for Five Long Years of Set-Top Battle RoyaleS

One year ago, we predicted that the infinite format war would rise from the ashes of the HD DVD/Blu-ray format war-that a million online services and set-top boxes would suddenly promise to deliver movies and video to your computer or TV. And that each one would essentially be their own format, since none of them are compatible, and each would promise only a fraction of available movies. We were right about our fears, but we also have a solution to a decent download collection.

Today, as new boxes and services are announced, there has yet to appear one that can give you every movie, let alone a single format you can use on your various everyday devices. Thankfully, what we're hearing now is that while this infinite format war may not go on forever, the state of video will suck for the next five years until every service has the same baseline catalog. If you believe the studios. In the meantime, you'll be looking for the set-top box with the best catalog, and the one that can deliver you your films in the best way possible.

If you thought the HD DVD/Blu-ray split was bad, at least there was an easy order to it, an alignment by studios. Warner, Universal and Paramount were on HD DVD, everyone else (plus Warner) put their movies on Blu-ray. Sure, no Big Lebowski on Blu-ray, but at least you knew why. There is nothing even approaching logic when it comes to the movie options from VOD set-top box to the next, at least not from the user perspective. Warner Bros. put out Ocean's Thirteen. You can watch it on Vudu and Amazon Unbox, but not iTunes. Warner also put out I Am Legend, which is on all three, and Xbox Live Marketplace. Paramount's Shooter is on all three, but only for purchase, not rental (and totally MIA from Xbox). And you could rent Disney/Pixar's Ratatouille a few months ago, but now it's only for purchase. "WTF?" is a natural response. (On a side note, it's a bitch to really search or go through any of the catalogs, so it's even harder to tell if it's an accidental or intentional roadblock.)

To explain our current clusterfuck, you need a quick trip back to 1999. Remember the state of digital music back then? It was messy and ugly. The music industry had no idea what to do with this whole internet thing, and they were involved in assorted, competing ventures. Then along came iTunes, which basically organized the music universe and, to the chagrin of the RIAA, set up a sane pricing structure, too. It's not a complete catalog of all music ever (Beatles, hello?), but it's the closest thing there is, and it's pretty damn good. It brought order to the chaos, and now claims 85 percent of the legal download market. So it has the music industry by the balls, enough to speed their efforts to fortify a worthy number 2-Amazon, which was the first store to boast a catalog exclusively made up of DRM-free music from all four majors as a result, a perk deliberately withheld from iTunes to curb its power.

We're basically at that same, nebulous 1999 point with video, though Hollywood has learned from the music industry's mistakes—and iTunes is not the guaranteed champion in the case of online movie sales. The industry is eagerly putting stuff out there, and on as many services as it can-we're at the point now that most of the major studios release movies on online services on the same day they release them on disc.

A problem gumming up our dream of the one box is that each service requires a different format-one studio told us that a big issue is digitizing and formatting a film to meet each service's specs. It just takes time, though they're going as fast as they can. And new releases are gonna take priority, obviously. We are at least a little skeptical of this claim-we don't think it takes that long to digitize a flick

From what we were told, there's surprisingly little worry of a single company dominating digital distribution. A studio we talked to said that it's all so new, the fear of a monopoly (by Apple or otherwise) is at worst simply a thought skulking around in the back of their mind, not an actual concern. So no service is getting any favors to promote one over the other, or keep another in check. (At least not yet, though Blu-ray-happy Sony may well have the most incentive to keep the online space anemic.) Again, here, we're a little suspicious-obviously they wouldn't come right out and tell us they're afraid of iTunes, but when you look at the measly catalog and consider the studios' close study of how the music industry complete botched online music, the idea of Apple becoming the single biggest distributor of most digital media and holding serious sway over the entire entertainment industry has to weigh on their minds.

I mean, if you were in their shoes, and could prevent making iTunes into the all-powerful Walmart of the digital video generation, wouldn't you?

The one bit of protectionism going on that was copped to is the push to purchase, rather than rent. It makes sense that a studio gets more money when you buy a movie than rent it, since it's the same set of bits headed to your hard drive, and both are guaranteed you'll watch the movie at least once, but one costs three to four times as much as the other. So you are going to see a lot of them not open a flick up to online rentals until a month after it's available for purchase, and even see rental options disappear, as recently happened across the board with Pixar movies.

Ultimately, and somewhat shockingly, Hollywood does have the same vision we do-a single god box that'll deliver the entire catalogs of all the studios. Only, unlike in the iTunes hegemony, every home could have a different god box, be it Xbox, TiVo, Vudu or Roku.

Forgive the buried service journalism. Enough of this theoretical talk. So, what does it take to get a decent download collection? Until the god box, you will need several, two at least. Right now, Vudu is good for latest and greatest plus some older favorites; Netflix Roku has better TV options and some interesting deep cuts (plus a $99 box price and unlimited streaming for 10,000 so-so titles for any plan over $9 with discs by mail as a backup); Xbox 360 has a surprisingly large amount of HD movies, and a nice catalog geared towards the gaming demographic; Apple TV has its own legion of fans for its ability to move movies to iPods and computers, though it still has a lot to prove in the catalog section. That's not even counting the TiVo with Amazon Unbox or the cable box you likely already have, each with their own assorted VOD options. Even if you owned all of 'em, you still might not find what you want, even if it's something that should be slapping you in the face. Take Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, for instance. We could not legally find it on any service, even though the sequel hit theaters just a few weeks ago—and got a surprisingly good buzz from usually snooty critics. Did Warner miss the perfect opportunity? They wouldn't say.

The other major issue is the state of broadband and the guys controlling the pipes. For the online video revolution to fully take off in HD, we need bigger pipes. For most people, that's years away. This is deeply threatening to the cable companies, and they're pretty clear that they're not happy about content moving online-you can see the fear in the recent moves to limit all kinds of data consumption (most of which is already video), not just the supposed protocol of pirates. What if limits or overage charges were put in place for people who were simply doing their best to buy copyrighted video? Why would someone give up DVD and Blu-ray rentals from Netflix in order to pay twice—for both the bandwidth and the content—and have to wait somewhat impatiently for the download, too?

So friends, while all of this gets ironed out, the infinite format war rages on: Lots of boxes, lots of online services, none of them complete, none of them that'll fully satisfy your wife's desire to rid the shelves of DVDs. Hollywood just can't move fast enough for this revolution, as arguably eager as it is, and the ISPs may not clear the way when the show does get on the road. From what we can tell, the stuff will all get sorted out in time. How much time? Give it five more years. If you believe the studios. [Insert groan of impatience here.]