Shop Talk: The Cloud Part 2
By David Mumpower
May 31, 2012

Even the sky loves Apple.

Upgrading your physical media library to cloud servers is a scary process, particularly if you're over the age of 25. People younger than that are indoctrinated due to the ubiquity of similar MP3 services during the past decade. Those of us who are a bit older remember a time when there were only CDs and maybe even *gasp* cassette tapes and albums. Pulling the plug on physical ownership is an unnatural state to we who remember the time before the internet was ubiquitous.

Keeping this in mind, I will primarily be directing this column toward people who are comfortable with the cloud. If you are intransigent about giving up physical media, I am probably not going to say anything that fundamentally alters your point of view here. Even so, I hope that you will at least consider some of the concepts and find some utility in the discussion. If not, look out for the inevitable comet strike, Mr. Dinosaur.

I should preface this conversation by stating that when iTunes went live for the first time in 2001, I spent that day in wonderment, albeit in a manner nobody else understood. I confidently informed several friends that their world changed that day but that they would not recognize it for a while yet. In hindsight, the timeframe was probably five years or so before others came to understand my point of view.

Even so, I put my money where my mouth was by purchasing a first generation iPod that I still have in a closet somewhere. The battery eventually failed on it, but I kept it for the same reason I still have my Atari 2600. The original iPod is representative of a concept: digital media is Steve Jobs’ exploration of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I owned over 600 compact discs at one point. My first generation iPod could hold 5 GB of music, without requiring a dozen banker’s boxes worth of storage. Even better, I had one click access to said content without having to rummage around to find the right disc and put it in the player. In only a decade since the release of the iPod, this entire process for physical media has become archaic. Quick file access has redefined media content.

As I relay my experiences with movies in the cloud, the above aptly reflects my point of view about physical media. I see no valid applications for it in 2012. This is the key reason why my wife and I readily agreed to move to the cloud. Once a person finds himself in position to give away thousands of dollars of smoke-damaged media to Goodwill, they appreciate how much more manageable server storage is. I understand why some of you may be reticent to do so, though.

The primary concern is that if a consumer does begin to populate an online media library through a particular service, they have no protection if said service abruptly ends. I have in fact experienced this once, albeit to a minimal degree. Wal-Mart once implemented an ill-considered music service in order to compete with the major digital players in the industry. Since their prices were better and there were several free giveaways during the short run of Wal-Mart’s music service, I purchased roughly 25 songs from them.

Quite randomly, I received a notification from Wal-Mart that they had decided to terminate their music service. I was given a month to download the files from their server to my hard drive. And this was the number one retailer in the world bailing out of the digital music service. If Wal-Mart is not foolproof, who is? This is a particularly important point as we discuss Vudu next week since it is now owned and operated by Wal-Mart.

What you should take from the above is that the also-rans in the movie cloud industry may not be in this for the long haul. As such, hedging your bets with multiple services is a solid choice as is meticulously researching market conditions and selecting only the cloud service(s) you are confident will survive. I do not want anyone to invest a great deal of money into cloud movie storage then find themselves abandoned by a particular service. Remarkably, this has already happened to one unlucky group of early adopters.

Given that there are very real concerns about which services will last, I will now evaluate them based upon my personal experiences with each one. We have tried all of the major players as well as most of the minor ones. Netflix is obviously the service you are most likely to use for cloud-based rentals. We will not focus on this aspect of streaming. Instead, the topic at hand is permanent cloud ownership.

There are four major players right now: Amazon, Vudu, Cinemanow and Apple. Blockbuster was ostensibly the fifth, but the new ownership group at Dish Network decided to remove themselves from the marketplace. In fact, Blockbuster is completely gone from TiVo now as well as several other services. My HDTV app recently notified me of this: “Thank you for using Blockbuster. The Blockbuster service is no longer available. If you have purchased content for ownership through Blockbuster, we will send an email for further information.” Yikes!

This is a textbook example of the danger I mentioned above. Anyone who threw in their cloud support with Blockbuster is totally screwed. At this point, I not only do not recommend Blockbuster as a consideration but consider it an abject lesson in the dangers of picking the wrong cloud movie service. This week’s conversation will focus upon the current contenders in the marketplace that I dislike, Apple and Cinemanow. Next week, I will discuss the choices I recommend, Amazon, Vudu and Ultraviolet.

Excluding Blockbuster, the worst solution right now is Cinemanow. Frankly, this service aptly represents what a gigantic mess Best Buy is as a corporation. None of the decisions regarding the service make any sense to me. This was crystallized at the end of last year when Best Buy generously offered free codes for movie downloads over the holidays. I recognize it is poor taste to judge a service at least partially for its free products. Even so, Cinemanow has serious flaws.

A seminal aspect of building your cloud movie library is forward thinking. A poor decision would be to invest in standard definition copies of titles. I feel strongly about this, because HDTVs continue to drop in price to the point where they are fungible purchases. This is in stark opposition to 20 years ago when the home’s primary television was a living room staple for many years. From the time I was born until I was 25, my father bought exactly one television for his living room. I’ve purchased three in the past year (although that was a forced decision in the wake of the fire). As such, I am adamant that your video library needs to be in HD. You have spent a lot of money on a high quality, state of the art television set. There is no point in purchasing outdated standard definition titles to play on your HDTV when even your cellphone (!) is capable of high resolution video.

Inexplicably, Cinemanow does not sell 1080p licenses for the body of their digital content. Maybe this will change at some point but at the moment, any title you purchase from their service is immediately outdated and frankly wasted on an HDTV. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a cloud service that up-converts to 1080P. What you see is what you get on these products. Even worse, they sell their content at similar levels to competitors whose digital licenses ARE 1080p. Standard Best Buy overpricing extends to their online cloud services as well. Ergo, I am already inclined to dislike Cinemanow.

The cloud service itself works quite well. This is presumably because Best Buy purchased Roxio Now’s respected technology. I currently own about 20 titles on Cinemanow, most of which were either free or virtually free using Best Buy gift cards. Accessing the library is completely painless and I have had very few issues in terms of streaming. This is obviously because the bandwidth required is much lower for SD titles. Off my head, I cannot think of an instance wherein streaming has been interrupted. So, Cinemascore receives high marks in terms of account/file access and service provision.

Cinemanow does have further issues, though. I presume that the body of my American readers has shopped at Best Buy at some point in your lives. You understand the overhead that one experiences in dealing with a corporate entity wholly comprised of mismanaged stores. If you have ever had to return anything there, you know what an infuriating process it can be. Their online video delivery service is no different.

To wit, I have been incorrectly charged for “free” purchases before. Trying to get a refund for Cinemanow’s mistake was comically difficult and the communication with their customer service reps bordered on being like that Star Trek episode where Picard has to learn to speak in metaphors. I quickly grew to hate Cinemanow due to their terrible customer service, lack of HD titles and overpriced SD releases. I eventually ruled them out as a purchasing option, even when the titles are free. That’s a telling indictment of how disorganized Cinemanow is at the moment.

Apple’s service represents more of the same for me. Yes, I know that some of you will defend Steve Jobs’ honor in a duel if it comes to that. I am someone who loves the Apple iPad, the iPhone and the iPod but I cannot stand MacBooks. Single click is the devil and the keyboard buttons are far too compact for my fingers, which are the appropriate size for a 6’4” man. Apple appeals to the tiny fingers crowd of artists, one of whom happens to be my 5’2” wife. We have a deal that she doesn’t touch my laptops/desktops and I don’t touch her MacBook. The point here is that I enjoy Apple products enough to stomach their standard overpricing but I am not a fervent disciple of the brand.

Keeping this in mind, my experience with iTunes movie titles is much less positive than with the music store. And I should note that I eventually dropped the iTunes music store in favor of Amazon’s vastly superior service. You can safely guess my opinion of the iTunes movie cloud experience thus far.

Apple conveniently shows previous purchases in the iTunes folder, so I can say with confidence that I own six titles, five of which are movies I love and the other one is something I must have picked up for free one day when I was testing the experience. I apologize to the producers/creators of The Wild, but I have absolutely no recollection of this movie. This makes it an excellent selection to evaluate in terms of file access. Therein lies the source of my dissatisfaction with Apple/iTunes with regards to the cloud.

With the other major services, I have the ability to access them through my television. I can do this through videogame systems, Blu-Ray players, TiVo, Roku and even the televisions themselves. Most HDTV units sold these days include smart apps, my methodology of choice for cloud file access. The problem is that Apple does everything the Apple way, forcing consumers to purchase an Apple TV if they want to watch files from their iTunes library.

I have no interest in the Apple TV since it’s redundant in combination with the Roku. Due to this, the files in my iTunes library are virtually inaccessible to me. Yes, I can watch them through my computer but this is not my methodology of choice. My wife and I have a pair of televisions in our living room (don’t knock it until you try it, movie lovers) and we want to use those rather than a laptop screen/monitor. I gave The Wild a chance in this regard, but I grew frustrated after only a few minutes.

The process requires me to either stream on the laptop or download the file to my hard drive than watch it. This alone represents a misrepresentation of the concept of cloud ownership. What I expect from a service is to click on a file in my library and watch it at my convenience. Since Apple does sell HD titles (to their credit), they encourage their users to download files in order to reduce bandwidth. As I type this, Apple’s stock is in the range of $480 and they have a cash surplus of $100 billion yet they are bandwidth spendthrifts. This annoys me.

Taking the hint, I downloaded the file rather than streamed it. My preferred methodology is to work on my laptop while the televisions entertain/inform me in the background. I was actively agitated by the forced change in my behavioral pattern, which did negatively reinforce my opinion of Apple’s cloud system. Yes, the movie played fine and looked great. And yes, there were obviously no streaming issues since I wasn’t in fact streaming it. Even so, this is not the way I want my cloud service to work.

Sans Apple TV, my iTunes movie cloud is akin to a landlocked ship. Perhaps at some point down the road Apple will relent and allow other apps the same access to these files but by then I will have committed so much to other cloud services that they will have missed their window. If you are a devout Apple lover who owns an Apple TV, it may prove to be the perfect service for you. For me, it’s a pass.

In next week’s column, I will explain how I came to choose Vudu and Amazon as my primary cloud providers. I will also relay some details about my experiences with Ultraviolet as well as my initial attempts at the Disc to Digital service utilized by Vudu.