Pass on the popcorn

Written by Rakesh Raman | Updated: Feb 1 2008, 04:55am hrs
Filmgoers will miss the popcorn. But yes, they can now use the Internet to buy a low-costyet good-qualitymovie for viewing in their living rooms. Welcome the joys of convergence, which is fast making its presence felt. While TV sets and home-theatre systems get smarter each passing day, the Web is ushering in an inimitable new distribution platform for movies. Internet connectivity, barring odd cable-snapping incidents like the one in the Mediterranean the other day, is getting swifter and swifter as well, and consumers want to leverage this speed for better entertainment.

The US-based DVD rental company Netflix has joined hands with LG Electronics to market a set-top box that will let consumers stream movies straight from websites onto TV screens. And unlike the IP-TV (Internet Protocol-based TV) or DTH satellite-TV services that exist in India, there will be enormous choice in film selection. Online movie reservoirs like CinemaNow and Amazon Unbox are packed with titles new and old. Netflix, with 7 million subscribers, offers nearly 90,000 titles on DVD, though initially its offering only a few of these movies and TV shows for Web streaming. Later this year, LGs set-top box will allow direct-to-TV downloads. In India, similar services could emerge, with local online movie rental services like Seventymm getting into the act.

In fact, the movie download business is a logical extension of the currently popular iPod-based music industry, and Apple Computer has already announced Apple TV. Likewise, Archos, a portable entertainment products company, is coming out with a two-way device that will record TV shows and also download movies from online video stores.

Films would be transferable to portable players, too. Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) devices will be able to download movies at Wi-Fi hotspots available at hotels, airports and so on. Archos TV+, for example, is a Web browser-based set-top box for video recording and Wi-Fi video downloads. Priced up to $547, the 160-gigabyte Apple TV too allows you to download multimedia content using wireless connectivity.

While the home video experience is not new, as theatre owners will say, faster Internet speeds will make a big difference to the business of movie distribution. While an Internet connection like DSL takes about six hours to download a good-quality high-definition (HD) movie, faster connections can do this for you in minutes. Just imagine. For instance, the US cable operator Comcast promises that its higher-speed networks will allow users to download an HD movie in four minutes flatyes, you read that right. Four minutes. And distribution companies use dedicated content-on-demand and digital rights management systems for online movie sales.

The Internet-led evolution of the entertainment market has been in evidence since the mid-1990s, when Internet TV came into being. Consumers using faster networks are no longer dependent on broadcasters fixed programming schedules. They can select channels from a wide array of options at whatever time is convenient to them. Services like World Wide Internet TeleVision provide a Web-based menu of over 2,000 online, on-demand TV channels from across the world.

Agreed, India is not an early adopter of such technologies, despite being the worlds most vibrant market for mass entertainment. But the Internet is the Internet. It has shattered boundaries before, and will do it again. Adoption is inevitable. But are our movie marketers, attuned to archaic distribution channels, ready for this shift Well, the sooner they devise new sales systems to meet the emerging demand, the better. A cinema outing to the theatre costs a family some Rs 1,000. Home cinema will be one-tenth the cost. This is an opportunity to expand the market, but the revenue systems must be put in place before pirates get a go. There are millions of legal downloads to be sold. Dont fall behind the curve. And keep watching.

The writer is a technology market analyst. These are his personal views. Email: rr_thakur@yahoo.com