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Will UltraViolet's Weak Takeoff Hurt DASH's Chances?
Slow uptake, technical problems, and poor user reviews bring UltraViolet's future into question

Any house needs a firm foundation. At least that's the way Mitch Singer, president of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) and CTO of Sony Pictures, sees it. Yet there are questions about the very foundations of DECE's UltraViolet consumer content solution that may have wide-ranging impact.

As we reported last week from CES, Singer attempted to allay doubts about the future of UltraViolet (UV) by saying the base platform is almost complete.

“If you think about the UV platform, it is the first ever interoperable cloud service," said Singer. "This has never been done before. The best way to describe the launch is that we are building a house which has incredible foundations and integrity and in our excitement to move in there was some finish carpentry that needed to be done."

UltraViolet Getting Poor Reviews

The finish carpentry in Singer's comments may be referring to sprucing up the overall UV proposition, but in all likelihood it probably refers to the fact that UltraViolet copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 received very poor customer reviews, enough to drive Flixster to offer iTunes gift cards to customers in order to receive digital copies that could be viewed on iOS devices. 

More customers provided one-star ratings on the Deathly Hallows Part 2 disc than any other Harry Potter release on Amazon, with more than 340 one-star reviews being solely directed at UltraViolet.

"UltraViolet is another feeble, doomed attempt by some dinosaur brain Hollywood execs to restrict the use of your legally bought digital purchase," wrote reviewer John Dettingmeijer. "UltraViolet is NOT a digital copy that resides on a device of your choice to be used on a device of your choice. It is a streaming service, for which you have to sign up and maintain an account, at the expense of your bandwidth, compatible with some but not all mobile devices."

The fact that UltraViolet is a different approach than previous digital copies is somewhat ironic, given the DECE's take on Netflix's decision to abandon UltraViolet.

While it appears the decision may have as much to do with Amazon's entry into the DECE and its support of Ultraviolet—Amazon has put together a deal with UK-based Lovefilm, which is in a pitched battle with Netflix for UK premium content streaming subscriptions—it's troubling that Netflix has stepped away from UltraViolet so soon after the MPEG DASH ratification.

DASH, as we've covered extensively, is a way to parse XML content for manifest or playlists in to a Media Presentation Description (MPD) that provides a standards-based way for fragmented MP4 (fMP4) files or segmented MPEG-2 Transport Streams to be play in a DASH-compliant player.

Hand-in-hand with the DASH ratification and inclusion as an ISO standard, however, is the move to make the common file format (CFF) within Ultraviolet an ISO standard. In addition, the five-pronged approach to content protection, known as the common encryption scheme (CENC) is also being leveraged from UltraViolet into DASH as another ISO standard.

The tight tie between UltraViolet and DASH could cause potential trouble for DASH if additional backers of UltraViolet begin to pull away from the UV camp. An even more troubling scenario, though, would be the lack of uptake in UltraViolet from a consumer standpoint.

UltraViolet Registration Numbers are Disappointing

Just such news hit the wire during the Consumer Electronics Show, from the DECE itself.

"UltraViolet attracts more than 750,000 households in the first three months," a press release from DECE touted. "The audience of registered users is expected to grow exponentially in the years ahead."

Running the numbers for 2011, it's interesting to see where Ultraviolet registrations would fall in the rankings, if UltraViolet itself were a DVD release (not to be confused with the actual DVD titled, well, Ultraviolet).

The top 100 DVD sales of 2011 generated 147,075,219 disc sales. Of the almost 150 million units sold, several of the 19 titles that contained UltraViolet did not crack the top 50, being surpassed by perennial favorites. 

To put the 750,000 Ultraviolet registrations into perspective, let's look at Deathly Hallows sales: for 2011, Deathly Hallows Part 2 garnered the 3rd highest sales in number of units, attracting 5,828,243 unit sales. While we don't have actual figures in terms of UltraViolet registrations against specific titles, if we isolated Deathly Hallows Part 2 sales as the only UltraViolet title and then looked at all UltraViolet registrations, they would still only account for one registration for every eight DVDs sold (12.87%).

To put it in even greater perspective, the 750,000 UltraViolet registrations represents one-half of one percent of all DVDs sold in 2011 (.51% to be precise). If UltraViolet registrations were a DVD sold in 2011, it would rank 90th, just above Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules and just below I Am Number Four. For perspective, Elf, released in 2004, ranks 80th in 2011 with over 790,000 units sold. 

The DECE news release went on to say that the 19 initial Ultraviolet titles—the ones that generated the 750,000 household registrations—will be joined by a larger group of theatrical releases in 2012, such as Moneyball, J. Edgar, Happy Feet 2, Tower Heist and Hop. What's interesting to note is that these are not A-list titles in terms of box office receipts (none are in the top 20 for 2011), so perhaps DECE is learning the lesson of growing organically and avoiding the blockbuster dislike that came with the blockbuster DVD release of Deathly Hallows 2.

All this provides perspective for DASH: if UltraViolet fails to gain traction, it may jeopardize DASH. On the other hand, looking back two years from now, we may find the only vestiges of UltraViolet left are the common file format and common encryption schemes that DASH has adopted.

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