Disney in the cloud with DivX

It hasn’t received much attention in the U.S., but in France this week, Disney announced perhaps the most aggressive move yet by a major studio to embrace both cloud-based media lockers and cross-platform interoperability. Two new services, called Disneytek and abctek, will allow Freebox ISP subscribers in France (currently about 4.5 million subs) to purchase Disney and ABC movies and TV shows through their Freebox TV set-top device and store them permanently in the cloud.

In addition to being able to watch the content on their TV via streaming, subscribers also can download the movies and TV shows to a PC or Mac for storage and playback, and can further transfer them to up to five other DivX-certified devices (The DivX devices must first be registered online) via USB drive or SD card.

Freebox is the ISP owned by French telco Free. Freebox TV is a ADSL modem provided to subscribers that also functions as an IP video server, DVR, wireless router and digital music device, among other things.

Many of Disney’s animated “crown jewels” will be available through the Disneytek service, including classics like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” as well as several Pixar titles, such as the three “Toy Story” movies. ABC titles available include “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Castle” and “Lost.” The content will be available and both SD and HD, and in French as well as the original English-language versions with French subtitles. Some titles will also “soon” be available in 3D according to the press release.

Click here for the English-language press release (PDF).

The move clearly puts Disney and ABC well out ahead of their U.S. peers in terms of supporting permanent storage of purchased media content in cloud-based lockers. Other studios have experimented with media lockers, such as through Amazon’s Disc + On Demand promotion, but never anything near as comprehensive as what Disney is doing in France.

Nominally, the other studios are supporting the UltraViolet initiative, which is supposed to make cloud-based storage a reality for consumers. But apart from perhaps a few Blu-ray titles with the UV logo on the packaging coming later this year, no appreciable amount of UV content will be available anywhere in the world at least until sometime next year (DECE is yet to announce plans to launch UV in France). UV-compliant devices won’t ship until next year, either.

Disney, of course, is not yet supporting UltraViolet. And with the launch of Disneytek, any hopes UV supporters were nursing that the studio would eventually come on board are now looking pretty forlorn:

The DivX  problem: Before being acquired by Rovi last year, DivX spent the better part of a decade trying to bootstrap its own content ecosystem, on pretty much the same model that UltraViolet is following. As with UltraViolet, the core of the DivX ecosystem is a common file format, supported by a wide range of certified-compliant devices. Due in part to its somewhat uncouth origins DivX was never able to attract consistent support from the major studios (although some, such as Warner Bros., have made movies available in the DivX format on a small scale in certain territories).

Since being brought under the same corporate roof as Rovi (née Macrovision) and Sonic Solutions, however, DivX has achieved respectability.

DivX is a member of DECE and the UV consortium. Yet clearly, it does not intend to limit the use of its file format and certification program to UV content. What its involvement in Disneytek and abctek clearly demonstrate, in fact, is that you don’t really need UltraViolet to achieve secure, device-level interoperability based on a common file format. Widely supported alternatives are already available.

The side-loading problem: One of the more intriguing elements of the Disneytek service is its support for side-loading of content between devices using flash memory-based removable media. Side-loading actually solves a lot of interoperability problems because it’s easy to do, it makes content as portable as devices and it can be standards-based (USB drives, SD cards), making it easy and cheap for device-makers to support. But it has long been anathema to the studios because it involves copying.

Clearly, Disney has gotten over that psychological hurdle. And having done so, a lot of the rationale for UltraViolet falls away. So far, at least, DECE has not announced plans to support side-loading of UV content. In the UltraViolet scheme, content must already be stored on a device or must be reacquired from the cloud each time it’s viewed. There’s no passing it around between devices. That could turn out to be a hidden but significant competitive liability for UltraViolet versus other options, like DivX.

There are some shortcomings to Disneytek. Right now, at least, there does not appear to be a way to move your existing content library into your Freebox TV locker. To take advantage of the flexibility the new service offers, it appears you would have to purchase the content again through your Freebox TV.

Still, Disneytek is a major step toward making cloud-based media storage and retrieval a viable option for consumers, done using commercially available tools that are already widely supported on consumer devices.

See? It wasn’t so hard.

Further reading:

Disneytek FAQ (English)