Video via the internet: the next big thing

Now you can just download the film you want. But can it really be that easy? Rhodri Marsden investigates

A tiny window on a computer monitor displaying a fuzzy and barely audible video clip no longer elicits the gasps of amazement it once did. More powerful computers, more efficient data compression techniques and much faster download speeds are making internet-sourced video material not only accessible, but almost enjoyable.

Search engines such as Blinkx and Yahoo! index videos from a host of sites such as BBC News and ITN, while the latest workplace distractions have come from Google Video and YouTube, which offer users the chance to share their clips with the world. This makes for a predictable glut of You've Been Framed-style sequences of family members breaking wind, but there are also many wonderful TV moments, seen by few at the time of broadcast, which have been digitised from old VHS collections. Pakistan cricketer Shahid Afridi's record-breaking century in Nairobi in 1996 is just one of thousands of gems that have emerged.

The ease with which footage can be accessed and the huge sales of hand-held media players such as the iPod has made the public keen to access new films and TV shows in a similar way. But distributors, faced with huge potential demand, seem either unwilling or unable to offer much in the way of content to anyone outside North America.

In the USA, services such as Google Video, Apple's iTunes and Vongo have moved into the world of paid-for video downloads with great success, offering a mix of high-rated TV shows and movies. Yesterday, the US companies CinemaNow and Movielink launched services that make Hollywood blockbusters available for download on the same day as the DVDs go on sale at Wal-Mart and Blockbuster, putting movie downloads in direct competition with DVD retailers for the first time.

In the UK, similar services have been slow to appear. Attempts to buy videos from US-based operations are thwarted by full-page apologies generated by automated systems designed to keep us firmly out.

The barrier is there because of the continuing, highly delicate negotiations taking place with the content providers (film studios and TV networks) over the rights to offer such material in territories outside the USA; indeed, CinemaNow has put its meagre subscription-based UK operation on hold while it focuses on the US. Google, Apple and Amazon are all reluctant to reveal their plans.

It's inconceivable that they won't offer premium content in the UK at some point, but in the meantime it's left to a handful of services (see box right) to share a fairly small amount of material between them.

Paul Hague, founder of the British Internet Broadcasting Company, explains the predicament. "Along with everyone else, we've been trying to reach agreements with the content owners, but it took 14 months for us to obtain music-video rights from just one of them. You can't force them to make a decision - they'll take as long as they want to take."

This reticence is partly explained by the boom in paid-for music downloads. Media companies ended up being forced to the negotiating table as Apple's iTunes became established. This led to an online music market largely controlled by one company that can dictate pricing and terms. Video rights owners don't want to make the same mistake.

This caution doesn't just surround the kind of video material that will be available to us online, but also how we view it. Concern about piracy has meant that recent previews of the TV comedy shows Titty Bang Bang and The IT Crowd - from the BBC and Channel 4 respectively - were streamed directly to the web browser. This avoids giving viewers a video file that could be duplicated, shared or copied to another medium.

Similarly, companies that allow downloads have favoured strict digital rights management (DRM), which gives a limited time-period to watch the files before they're rendered unplayable and prevents any transfer to DVD. The announcement from AOL and LoveFilm of a download-to-keep service, which launches in the UK on Monday and includes a DVD copy as part of the deal, is a concession to consumers who are unhappy to be tethered to their PC to watch a film, or forced to work out a way of connecting the computer to their TV in order watch it in their living rooms.

In addition, most existing services only offer files that can be played using Microsoft's Windows Media Player software and cannot be transferred to Apple's video iPod - currently the most popular hand-held video-playing device. Until Apple launches a video download service in the UK, iPod owners will have to be content with the odd movie trailer and music video through iTunes.

In practice, some DRM restrictions can be subverted by tools that savvy code-warriors upload to the internet, but so many obstacles are being placed between consumer and content that the rise in the use of BitTorrent software is far from surprising. BitTorrent was designed to facilitate the transfer of large amounts of data between computers, making it perfect for the sharing of video files with no copy protection; currently, the launch of a new DVD is invariably accompanied by a glut of users downloading an illegally "ripped" version using BitTorrent.

The more conscientious file sharers shun commercially available material in favour of recently broadcast TV shows that people may have missed first time around; although still of dubious legality, it's a true video-on-demand service, and it is becoming so widely used that the industry faces an uphill struggle to persuade consumers that they shouldn't be downloading something for nothing.

"This is easily the biggest hurdle we face," says Paul Hague. "To change attitudes, we simply have to try to give people what they want, when they want it."

Whether the video industry can pull all the strands together and start offering a usable, affordable and truly global service remains to be seen.

And the winners will be...

SKY BY BROADBAND

www.sky.com/skybybroadband

Technical Windows XP; Windows Media Player 10; 512kbps or faster broadband; Sky By Broadband software; a Sky subscription.

Restrictions After downloading, you have a set period to view, usually 30 days for films. Can only be played on the download PC.

Cost Free with existing Sky subscription to two or more premium channels. Sky Movies customers can download movies only; Sky Sports viewers can access sports clips only.

Material More than 200 movies, including Hollywood hits such as The Day After Tomorrow and cult classics such as Dr Strangelove. About 1,000 sports clips, including Premiership and European football highlights.

Coming soon The list of movies will expand to more than 1,000 titles.

LOVEFILM/AOL

www.lovefilm.com www.aol.co.uk/film/downloads

Technical PC running Windows XP, 2000 or 2003 Server; WMP 9 or 10; 1Mbps or faster broadband.

Restrictions Download-to-rent: seven days to view, and once you press play, you have 24 hours to finish. Download-to-own: you keep. Files can't be burnt to DVD, but download-to-own includes a DVD in the post.

Cost Download-to-rent: £2.99 a film (£3.49 for higher quality); some exclusive short film content is available for as little as 49p. Download-to-own is from £9.99 to £24.99.

Material Download-to-rent: 500 movies, including Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Bowling For Columbine; niche material. Download-to-own: 35 Universal titles, including King Kong; more coming.

Coming soon May launch for systems such as Mac, Linux and Sony PSP; more content.

BOXOFFICE365

www.boxoffice365.com

Technical PC only; WMP 9 and IE 4 or above; 512kbps or faster broadband.

Restrictions Can be played as many times as you want on the machine it's downloaded to; can be copied to CD or portable player.

Cost Films can be downloaded for £6 to £7 and music and comedy videos for £7 to £10.

Material Comedy, music, a handful of films.

Coming soon Plans to have thousands of hours of comedy, music and film available by the end of the year.

WIPPIT

www.wippit.com

Technical Mac/Windows XP or 2000; iTunes/WMP 9; broadband connection.

Restrictions True download-to-keep; can be burnt and transferred to iPod or similar.

Cost From 99p to £9.99.

Material A handful of independent films.

Coming soon More titles.

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