I recently sat down with Mitch Singer, the Sony Pictures executive who runs the UltraViolet consortium (a/k/a DECE). He showed me something that I hadn’t seen from this type of organization before: a demo.
What I saw resembled a preview of a new media format more than it did the output of a standards initiative. It had the Hollywood-style bombast of, say, the Blu-ray previews several years ago. But beyond that, I saw a mockup of a website that Singer said would be delivered as part of some future release of UltraViolet – not the first release. The demo showed a user interface for a family rights locker, where all of the family’s purchased digital video can be searched, browsed, and called up for viewing. The content is segregated by family member, with the example that kids can’t watch the R-rated material.
Singer explained that UltraViolet will be offering this type of website on a “white label” basis for retailers, which can then simply put their branding on it and sell content. Neustar Inc. will provide back-end services such as identity management and device registration and authentication. In other words, this demo resembles what OverDrive provides for e-book retail sites, what Omnifone provides for mobile music retailers, and what the Associated Press provides for local newspapers’ websites.
This is a huge step forward from what we have seen from similar initiatives in the past, such as Coral, where the standards initiative would hand prospective implementers… a spec. (At least the Digital Media Project offered a reference implementation called Chillout.) It also represents a vast improvement in what we industry folks call marcomm.
It’s too bad that the UltraViolet demo is only viewable from a few laptops (including Mitch Singer’s) and not publicly. And indeed, specs serve a purpose even from the marcomm standpoint: they give everyone something substantive to evaluate. UltraViolet’s “brand launch” a couple of months ago was a failure from a marketing standpoint: because it came with neither a spec nor a technical whitepaper, it was easy for the techblogocracy to dismiss as yet another Hollywood cabal and to misrepresent through not-very-educated guesses about how the system will actually work.
White label services are usually of more interest to smaller retailers than to large ones. The number of major retailers actually participating in UltraViolet is small: among US retailers, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target are missing (as is Apple, of course); Best Buy and Netflix are involved but also doing their own things. The major entity that hopes to benefit from UltraViolet is Neustar, which stands to make revenue from every authentication that happens in the UltraViolet scheme.
We’ll have to wait until next year to see the first UltraViolet based services. But in the meantime, I have to wonder: will UltraViolet be dependent on small video stores to succeed?