We should start with the basics. Amazon has apparently struck deals with a large number of content providers, including major TV networks, such as CBS, Fox, Nickelodeon and others (but not ABC or NBC) and deals with a number of major movie studios including Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.
You get content through the Amazon unbox video player, which is the control center for managing downloads and control over the content. Once the show or movie is downloaded, you can watch it on your computer or on an approved video device (but no iPods or Macintoshes and nary a word about Linux). And if you know how to do it, you can hook your computer up to your television and watch the TV show there.
All of that is reasonably straightforward, until you start to break it down. Although this is video on demand, you need to plan your demand a day in advance. Amazon estimates that it will take more than seven hours to download a two hour movie over a 750 kbps line. The system does implement progressive download, meaning that you can start watching immediately as the content comes, but at these download rates, you’ll run out of content quite quickly.
Then the question is where to watch. Video downloads, unlike music downloads, face the last-foot problem: how do you move the content from where it has been downloaded—your computer—to where you would actually like to watch it—your big-screen television set? We don’t have this problem with music. You just listen off of your iPod or you use a special device to hook up your iPod with your stereo system.
Amazon’s solution to the where-to-watch problem is a bunch of cables: hook your computer up to your television. If you have a desktop, you might need long cables, but if you have a laptop, this might be doable if cumbersome. An alternative is to burn the downloads to DVD and then just play the DVDs on the DVD player attached to your television. CinemaNow, an Amazon competitor, does exactly this for some of its movies. But not with Amazon Unbox, or, more precisely, you can burn to DVD—and indeed Amazon recommends that you do that to back up the video—but not in a format that will be readable by a DVD player.
Rental is much more limited. You typically must start watching the video within 30 days of downloading, and once you begin, you have 24 hours to watch it. At the end of that period, the video is automatically deleted from your computer. Unlike purchased content, you cannot move rental content to a portable device.
Speaking as a consumer, this isn’t a particularly exciting service. There are two technical hurdles—the download times and the last-foot problem—and for us the rental window is far too narrow (I couldn’t tell you the last time my wife and I watched an entire movie within 24 hours; it usually takes its three or four nights to watch a movie; as you can imagine that isn’t ideal; I suspect Syriana was tough enough to follow in a single sitting, but it certainly suffered over four days). And some users will object to the device limitations, including the lack of support for Macintosh, Linux and the iPod. Still we are in the early days of the video download markets and we should be delighted with entry by a sophisticated player like Amazon. The service will only get better.
Next week, I will lay out some of the features of the terms of service. This is where the nitty-gritty of designing access shows up in a big way.