MovieBeam’s (sort of) video on demand

Imagine a Tivo that could only record one channel, would only record shows that the networks thought you might be interested in, charged you every time you wanted to watch something and then would delete it whenever it wanted. Doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? That’s exactly what the movie studios have created with MovieBeam.

MovieBeam is a dedicated settop box that allows you to watch movies in your living room. The promise is your choice of up to 100 movies, with up to 10 new movies delivered to your box each week. Among the gems currently available on my box: Nacho Libre, The Bachelor, Don Juan de Marco and BASEketball. Selection of movies is clearly an issue.

Movies are continually beamed to the device using excess space in over-the-air analog TV broadcasts. That is one of the key problems with MovieBeam: it requires users to correctly position an antenna. I found that differences of even a centimeter or two make the difference between receiving movies and not. Although the instructions say that an indicator will light when the signal is lost, I haven’t seen it despite twice having lost signal for several days.

In order to use MovieBeam, you should have a home phoneline. With some difficulty, I was able to get it to work on a Vonage line.

The box costs $100. Movies cost $2-$5 depending on whether it’s a new release or not and whether you want to watch in HD. You have to finish watching within 24 hours of buying.

As it is currently executed, the service is a dud. The lack of selection and the difficulty in actually getting content on the box are tough to overcome. It’s an idea that might have worked a few years ago, but with the rise of video on broadband is unlikely to go anywhere. (MovieBeam is part-owned by Disney. According to their Web site, Disney “incubated” it for four years.)

But there is a silver lining – the hardware and UI are very good. The box has an Apple-like elegance and is packed with high end feaures, including HDMI and component video outputs, digital optical and coaxial outputs, a USB port and an Ethernet port.

The on screen UI is crisp, intuitive and very visual, nicely incorporating elements like movie trailers. A very nice touch: if you hold down the up/down buttons on the remote the list of movies scrolls faster. It’s infinitely better than Comcast’s On Demand interface.

The Ethernet port is currently inactive. (Which is odd, considering that there’s a prominent Linksys logo on the box.) But if you were to re-write the software to deliver a Netflix-size selection of movies over Ethernet instead of what the studios shove down to the box over the air, it has potential. While you’re at it, you could add support for music and photo playback.

Even then, you face the stiff competition from cable settop boxes. They’re essentially free to use, serve multiple purposes and are installed for you by the cable guy. With these challenges, MovieBeam is likely to face the same fate as another high-profile Disney venture.


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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