VUDU looks to be primarily a competitor with AppleTV. It is a small box, described as being about the size of a hardcover book, that connects to your TV and home network and allows you to download video. It seems similar to past dedicated appliances such as Akimbo and MovieBeam. Both of those services bombed in the market. Akimbo has refocused more on service than the device, offering their content via Windows Media Center PCs now. MovieBeam is effectively dead, it remains to be seen if they re-launch.
So, what sets VUDU apart? The hardware is more advanced. They're using MPEG-4, and the box has HD output. The box has HDMI, component, S-Video, and composite output. Audio has optical digital out, coax digital out, and RCA stereo. There is an Ethernet port for the network connection (but no built-in WiFi). A USB port, what appears to be a coax jack (but I can't read the label), and, interestingly, an 'IR Out' jack - not sure what that would be used for. The remote control is funky - just five buttons and a scroll-wheel. Other details, such as the size of the hard drive, have not been revealed. The final price hasn't been announced, but it is currently set at around $300 - the same price as AppleTV.
VUDU works a bit differently from the other devices as well, similar to the Joost software currently in beta - it utilizes P2P. Instead of all downloads coming from one central server, VUDU units use a BitTorrent style P2P network so that other VUDU boxes that already have the content will send parts of the file to the requesting unit. This will greatly reduce download times, just as BitTorrent does. Additionally, VUDU will use a predictive system, in a way similar to TiVo Suggestions. Based on predictions of which content is most likely to be rented, VUDU will download the start of the video file in advance. This allows the user to start playback immediately, while the unit continues to download the rest of the file in the background. That's pretty clever.
But, more than the hardware, VUDU seems to have managed to do something no one else has yet been able to do, including Apple - they've already negotiated content deals with every major studio - except Sony Pictures Entertainment, as well as several independent studios. From their site:
VUDU has struck unprecedented deals with seven major studios and numerous independent and international distributors to offer thousands of titles, from mainstream new releases to smaller, more specialized films. Via their broadband Internet connection, VUDU users will have the ability, on a studio-specific basis, to rent or buy movies and begin viewing them instantly.According to the New York Times articles, VUDU already has over 5,000 titles licensed - before they even launch, from the seven major studios and 15 smaller studios. That's 10 times the 500 films Apple offers from just two major studios.
VUDU's is headed by people with a lot of experience - two of them are ex-TiVo employees. Edward Lichty, VUDU's Chief Operating Officer, spent eight years at TiVo. VUDU's Vice President of Engineering, Andy Goodman, was the second hire on TiVo's software team. There is even more from the Times article:
By mid-2005, after raising $21 million from two Valley venture capital firms, Greylock Partners and Benchmark Capital, Vudu was ready to begin designing the box itself. Mr. Rossmann said he advised Mr. Miranz to “get some DNA from the company with the closest experience to what we are going through: TiVo.”Since VUDU is a 41 person company, as per the Times article, more than a quarter of the company is ex-TiVo.
TiVo’s set-top boxes have snared a passionate audience over the last decade by offering time-saving utility with a simple user interface. Vudu hired 11 TiVo veterans to help steer product design and manufacture its box.
VUDU emphasizes the video purchasing, and it isn't clear if the device will act like a media center extender and allow access of any local media. I would hope that it would, it appears to have all of the bits to do so and it would make the box a lot more useful if it did more than just download video from the net. Being able to access local music, photos, and video would make the device much more useful.
In any case, it would be yet another box to have under the TV - and it is getting a little bit ridiculous. I'm a gadget geek, and I have two TiVos, a DVD/LD player, VCR, A/V receiver, and Slingbox Pro under my TV - and an Ethernet switch to handle the devices. TiVo already handles local media - music and photos, and transcoded video. Amazon Unbox gives it movie downloads - the main thing lacking right now is HD content for the Series3, but this is supposed to be coming. Even with the content deals, are consumers willing to pay another $300 for another box that just allows them to pay for downloadable content? Even as a gadget geek, I'm not sure I would be willing to - especially if HD content comes to TiVo Unbox. Microsoft already has downloads on the Xbox 360, including HD content. And Sony will be bringing downloads to the PS3 - which is probably why they're not dealing with VUDU.
It seems they've thought about that too:
Vudu executives even consider the possibility that their hardware box might eventually melt away, with its services running as the video-on-demand feature in a satellite box, video game console or a new breed of high-definition televisions.Personally, with all the TiVo connections, my dream would be to see this service land on the Series3. (I doubt it would appear on the Series2, since they don't do MPEG4.) It could also land on devices like the SlingCatcher. I would like to see more convergence, fewer boxes.