Making the case for digital downloads

With a new digital movie delivery service, Disney and Apple this week joined the burgeoning movement to cloud storage and retrieval of media stuff. Similar to the Ultraviolet platform that Disney has shunned in favor of its own solution, the Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA) service lets users buy and watch movies on digital devices, in this case iPads, iPhones and iPods. It’s sort of a Disney-fied, miniature version of iTunes, and if you sign up you get Disney’s animated feature “The Incredibles” for free.

One of the appealing elements of DMA, Ultraviolet and other digital delivery platforms like Amazon Instant Video and Apple TV is a warm and comforting acquiescence to the cloud. Thanks to the pairing of mega-server arrays and fast broadband connections to them, we’re quickly becoming liberated from the do-it-yourself handiwork of the old days, when we had to manage the downloading of files to devices or personal storage systems.

This new migration skyward is apparent everywhere in personal media and in computing. From Apple’s iCloud for music to Dropbox for computer files to Amazon Instant Video for purchased movies, providers are leading us to the cloud to manage our stuff so that’s it’s ever-present and so that it’s available, as Disney’s new app attests, “anywhere.”

Except when it’s not.

Contrarian view
A contrarian view about cloud-streamed media springs from the idea that cloud-streaming systems are only as good as the Internet connection that tethers us to them. If that connection is poor, or if no connection is available, it’s like somebody has shut the door on our prized content collections. (If you’ve ever had to explain to a toddler why “The Land Before Time” is suddenly no longer available to watch, when the kid has become accustomed to watching it every day for the past month without failure, you can appreciate the magnitude of this problem.)

Then there’s the network side. A huge surge in video consumption – in North America, Netflix and YouTube account for more than 50% of Internet traffic on fixed networks – puts pressure on carriers to manage bandwidth demand through a grab-bag of remedies that includes monthly data caps, throttling of throughput during peak hours and general panic about the future.

These two forces – expectations for content availability and the pressure that video stream delivery puts on networks – have left open a window for old-school media downloading, with an updated technology twist.

Ex-cable guy Michael Willner, who sold his company Insight Communications Inc. to Time Warner Cable in 2012, is one of the believers.

“Video consumption is one of these uses that requires really top-notch connections all the time,” he told me. As Willner explains, that means diligent prioritization of packets and lots of in-the-background traffic management.

“If you shift some of the viewing to downloaded material, those downloads can be done in the background, which means they can be more easily adapted to the state of the network at the moment,” he says.

Willner is President and CEO of Penthera Partners of Pittsburgh (try saying that three times fast without spitting). It provides the software smarts behind Comcast’s Xfinity TV Go, a new service that lets cable subscribers export movies and TV shows to digital devices in a simple way. As Willner’s comment about network adaptability suggests, the secret sauce is managing the download stream to operate in the background so that it happens invisibly and with a lighter touch on network resources. Comcast likes the solution in part because it promises to move at least some live-streaming activity to a more manageable file-download approach.

“If we can shift a portion of video viewing on mobile devices from being dependent upon a streaming experience, then we’ve shifted some of the burden on the network,” Willner says.

That’s not the only advantage. Penthera has enhanced its core download engine with user-controlled attributes like a time-of-day setting that instructs downloads to happen in the wee hours of the night and a battery preserving function that halts background downloads if available power falls below a certain threshold. You can also tell your device to download a movie only when it’s connected to a Wi-Fi network, so you don’t eat up data minutes on a consumption-based mobile plan. “That makes it more appetizing to use,” Willner says.

On the provider side, Willner’s team also has made allowances for some complex rights and timing considerations. Windows open and close all the time on content availability, so Penthera has built in intelligence that lets providers designate when and whether titles should appear. An even more daunting mind-bender has to do with advertising-supported content. The auto maker who’s promoting a special cash-back incentive that expires in January doesn’t want you to see that commercial if you wait until February to watch your downloaded TV show episode. So Penthera has created functionality for planting substitute commercial files onto your iPad that will be drawn into the video file once you hit “play.”

Stop paying twice
One of the interesting motivations for Penthera springs from a situation you might recognize (I do). It’s the oddity of paying for the same content twice. Example: you subscribe to Showtime at home, but you want to load up two or three episodes of “Homeland” on your iPad before a long flight. So you pay for Showtime through a monthly subscription, and you pay again (to iTunes, for example) to fetch the on-demand episodes for your tablet.

With applications like Xfinity TV Go, the idea is to broaden your access to content you’ve already paid for. “It makes subscribing to Showtime through Comcast a more valuable experience,” Willner says.

That, plus the promise of relieving at least some pressure on IP data networks, is helping to preserve media downloading as a legitimate alternative to cloud-based streaming platforms. Oh, and there’s one more driver: a growing acceptance (and even perhaps a preference) for watching personalized video content on little glass screens. “There was a time when we all thought watching a feature length movie on a little tiny screen was a silly expectation,” Willner says. “As it turns out personal viewing is becoming more mainstream today than it ever was. The screens are getting better and better. And the experience is actually quite good.”