In order to compete with the arrival of television in the Fifties, Hollywood made movies bigger with CinemaScope, Cinerama, and enhancements like 3-D.

In order to reach the mobile device generation in the second decade of the 21st century, Hollywood is making movies smaller so they can be viewed on tablets, smartphones, and “mini” screens on other portable media players—collectively referred to as “handheld devices.”

Here is a brief rundown on the most prominent methods by which movies can find way their way onto handheld devices. (Of course, the same movies can also reach computers and Internet-connected TVs via these and other methods, but that’s not the subject of this article.)

iTunesApple’s iTunes now offers movies for downloading on both a purchase and rental basis in 50 countries.
In addition, Apple is now rolling out a supplement
that will allow some purchased movies to also be
stored automatically on the company’s “iCloud”
online storage system, from which they can be
downloaded again and again and again…

Until March 7, Apple’s online video offerings were very clear and simple. But  iCloud storage for movies has now been added as part of an obvious effort to expand those offerings, as a result of which things have become a little more complicated.

The “old” Apple system offered movies for downloading only (no streaming) in 480p standard definition (SD), which is DVD quality, with many of them also available in 720p high definition (HD), which is less than Blu-ray quality but perfectly acceptable for the smaller screens on handheld devices.  


The “new” Apple system retains the old system in
its entirety, but adds iCloud online storage for
many (but not all) of the same titles, when
purchased rather than rented, so they can be
“re-downloaded” to Apple devices. There is no fee
for online storage or the re-downloads. (Automatic
iCloud storage is currently available in the U.S.
only, and it is unclear how many of
the 50 countries it will eventually reach.)

Apple uses movie downloads to stimulate sales of its handheld devices—iPad and the latest versions of iPhone and iPod Touch—all of which use Apple’s proprietary iOS operating system and FairPlay Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. 

The first two versions of iPad can only accommodate 720p HD, but the third version, called simply The new iPad (“new” is not capitalized), can show 1080p HD (Blu-ray quality)—although it is undetermined whether and when it will have access to 1080p movies.    

Apple operates a device-centric “closed ecosystem,” and downloads are not available for handheld devices using the Android operating system and will not be available for the upcoming Windows 8 tablet from Microsoft.  

The Apple system has its virtues and its defects. Downloaded movies look beautiful—significantly better than streamed movies—and you can view them offline.    

On the other hand, the downloading process itself can be very time-consuming. And storage capacity is a definite problem—external storage is made impossible by DRM and you are limited to a maximum of 64GB internal storage on the most expensive models of iPad, including The new iPad, as well as iPhone and iPod Touch. (The new online storage function is, in part, an obvious attempt to address the internal storage problem on handheld devices.) 

To give you an idea of what storage capacity means as a practical matter, a two-hour 720p HD movie comes in at about 4GB while the same film in 480p SD is about 1.7GB. If you want to download the HD versions of all 22 James Bond movies to an iPad for your round-the-world cruise, forget it—there isn’t enough storage space.

Whatever the drawbacks, Apple does have advantages in the handheld market.  iTunes Stores operate globally. More than 55 million iPads had been sold worldwide as of the end of 2011—a potentially huge audience even without iPhone and iPod Touch—and millions more will be sold this year.   

When Twentieth Century Fox released Live Free or Die Hard on DVD in late 2007, the
disc contained two files—the DVD version
of the movie and a separate version “pre-formatted” for transfer to a
computer. The separate version was called a Digital Copy.

Subsequent iterations of the Digital Copy concept have become more flexible. For example, a later version doesn’t offer a file-on-disc but instead a connection to a website from which you can make a choice between different digital formats. Those formats now include, depending on the individual title, Apple’s iOS devices, Sony’s PlayStation Portable device, and handheld devices using the Windows Media format. More recently, a few titles are even available for Android devices.  

The Digital Copy concept is today in active use in several dozen countries, and Digital Copy files are available with Blu-ray discs as well as DVDs.  

Amazon has made a real splash these past few months with its Kindle Fire device,
which is currently available only in the U.S.—
with no immediate prospect for availability in
other countries.

If Apple is using movie downloads (software) as an incentive to sell iOS devices (hardware), then Amazon is using Kindle Fire (hardware) to sell its various movie services (software). The two are approaching the same handheld video market from opposite directions—and with different business motivations. 

Amazon offers three different video services in the U.S.:   

“Amazon Instant Video” offers movies for purchase or rental and then storage in an online video “locker” that Amazon calls “Your Video Library,” from which they can be streamed to multiple devices, including Kindle Fire.

“Prime Instant Video” is a $79-per-year subscription service that offers streams of movies to multiple devices, including Kindle Fire.

With “Disc+ On Demand,” if you buy a qualifying DVD or Blu-ray disc, Amazon will put a free standard-definition digital copy of the same movie in Your Video Library, from which you can stream it to multiple devices, including Kindle Fire.

Amazon has a distinctive separate logo for Disc+ On Demand, but not for Amazon
Instant Video or Prime Instant Video. 

Kindle Fire is a “loss leader” designed to increase sales of the three video services, and if it does so it could more than make up whatever Amazon loses on the device itself—estimated at “a few dollars” for every unit Amazon sells directly and much more for units Amazon provides at wholesale prices to third-party retailers like Best Buy. 

Amazon’s video services are primarily streaming services. Downloading to Kindle Fire is possible for Amazon Instant Video and Disc+ On Demand titles, but extremely limited—the device has only 8GB of internal storage capacity, of which 2GB is used by Amazon to provide some essential “apps,” leaving only 6GB for movie storage. That’s not much.

Like iTunes, the Amazon system has its virtues and its defects. Transfers into Your Video Library are instantaneous, and so is streaming from the Library. No waiting. There is also no fee for use of the Library, whose storage capacity is theoretically infinite.  

On the other hand, Kindle Fire is limited to standard definition video—no high definition of any kind. And you have to be online to watch the streams. Moreover, if you read the fine print in Amazon’s Terms of Use, you will spot two other significant limitations:

You cannot connect to Your Video Library when you are traveling outside the U.S., so Kindle Fire cannot be used to watch movies when you are on that round-the-world cruise.

Although you technically own movies you have purchased and stored in Your Video Library, Amazon reserves the right to deny you access to those movies “due to potential content provider licensing restrictions”—an obvious reference to those periods of time when pay television services like HBO have “exclusive” rights to particular titles.   

Incidentally, Kindle Fire, which uses an Amazon-modified version of the Android operating system, is available only in the U.S. because it is the only country in which Amazon can provide the video services that make it useful for moviewatching. (On a worldwide basis, including the U.S., Amazon also offers separate Kindle and Kindle Touch devices that are intended primarily for “e-Book” downloads. These other Kindles have no video capabilities.) 

Has Amazon succeeded thus far with its approach? The company has not disclosed how many Kindle Fire units were sold from its launch in November 2011 until the end of the year, but Wall Street analysts estimate between 4 and 6 million units. Have increased software sales more than made up for losses on the hardware? Software sales certainly increased, but we don’t know if they increased enough. 

One thing is certain. If Amazon intends to stay in the game, it will have to offer a Kindle Fire 2—bigger screen, higher resolution (720p HD at least), and more storage capacity. And a retail price considerably higher than $199. 

It was—and possibly still is—a noble idea,
first suggested by Sony Pictures in 2007 as the
“Open Market” system: all digital copies should be playable on all handheld movie viewing devices, regardless of their operating systems or DRM technology.

A group calling itself the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) was formed in 2008 to develop the concept, but there was an immediate problem: Disney and Apple said, “No, we are not participating.”

DECE went ahead anyway, and what has emerged in stages is a system called UltraViolet. It is still not finished.

Finished or not, Warner Bros. launched its version of UltraViolet last October, with disastrous results, and was soon followed by Sony Pictures and Universal, which modified the Warner system slightly, and by Paramount, which took an entirely different approach.   

The details don’t matter, because the details will change, but the premature launches demonstrated a fundamental problem that could bedevil the whole system: within the limits of certain common technical standards, every movie provider is free to adopt its own business model. Among the models tested or suggested so far:

You can purchase (not rent) qualifying DVD and Blu-ray discs that include “redemption codes,” which can be used to obtain free UltraViolet digital copies from the Internet.

You can avoid purchasing discs and instead buy UltraViolet digital copies from the Internet. 

You can pay a “modest” fee and obtain from the Internet UltraViolet digital copies of titles in your existing DVD and Blu-ray disc collections—an approach called “disc-to-digital.”  

These models—and others yet to come—will be serviced via different websites, all of which will require registration and have their own “terms and conditions.”  We already know enough to say it’s going to be complex—and potentially very confusing.           

The unfinished version of UltraViolet is currently available in the United States and, on a much smaller scale, in the United Kingdom. DECE says the system will also launch in Canada sometime this year, but the names of and launch dates for other countries have not been announced.  

For those wishing to follow UltraViolet developments as they unfold, there is an independent “UltraViolet Demystified” website (http://www.uvdemystified.com/uvfaq.html) that describes itself as “an early work in progress.” 

The same could be said of the UltraViolet system itself. 

Disney, which is not participating in UltraViolet,
has stated several times that it is planning
a Disney-only system called Disney Studio
All Access
, which would provide digital copies
of Disney’s traditional hand-drawn animated
films, the Pixar computer-animated films, and
live-action movies like the Pirates of the

Disney has created a website where you can watch a very general introductory video and sign up to obtain more information when it becomes available (http://disney.go.com/disney-studio-all-access). The company is making vague statements that it will launch its service “later this year.”  

In the meantime, Disney offers Disneytek and ABCtek services in France that allow its movies and TV shows to be downloaded, in both SD and HD, onto USB keys and memory cards for playback on tablets and smartphones using the DivX video format—an indirect technique that may gain more favor in the future. The two services can also be streamed.       

This is a rapidly evolving area, and some of the information above may already be out of date when you read this. (This article was put in final form on March 8, 2012.) Our apologies in advance if that turns out to be the case, even in part.

One notable omission from our summary is Netflix, which doesn’t gravitate toward any single service or device but which follows a ubiquitous course all its own—and whose streams (downloads are not available) are now accessible on more than 800 devices of all types in 47 countries. Netflix is truly device-agnostic.       

We’ve also had to ignore certain issues in the interest of brevity, like the large role that apps will play in all of this. And we haven’t highlighted the frustrating fact that a movie you want may not be available at all, or may be available on some but not all services, or even if available generally may not be technically compatible with your particular handheld device.   

Finally, we won’t attempt to list the “improvements” that have been promised for the future—but will note briefly that a consortium called the Secure Content Storage Association (SCSA) has recently announced plans to develop an external storage device acceptable to copyright owners that could serve to supplement internal storage and alleviate the downloading limitations described earlier.   

If it all seems much too complicated, you’re right… it is. Several years ago a small company in Denmark inadvertently offered everyone sound advice by naming itself KISS Technology—with “KISS” meaning Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Unfortunately, no one took the advice.  

Jeff Williamson is a self-confessed “technology geek” who lives in Portland, Oregon.