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Wal-Mart trips over PC-TV gap

Walmart_logo Wal-Mart probably had a lot of reasons to get out of the downloadable movie business, most notably the withdrawal of Hewlett-Packard, its technology provider. Underlying both companies' decisions, though, is the sense that it's still too hard for the masses to watch a downloaded movie on the big TV screen in their living room.

That difficulty stems in part from Hollywood's demand for electronic locks to deter piracy, combined with the lack of a standard way to move content securely around the home. The simplest solution would be to burn the downloaded movie onto a DVD, but the major studios are insisting on a technology that existing DVD burners don't support. The next best thing would be a set-top box that can take movies through a home network from a PC to a TV, but they tend to be expensive or so unpopular that they vanish quickly from the store shelves. The most elegant of these is probably Apple's Apple TV set-top box, but the only DRM that it supports is the one used solely at Apple's iTunes store, which carries a tiny fraction of Hollywood's catalog (only Disney is currently offering new home releases there, although Fox reportedly will join the Jobs Team soon).

Sansa_taketv This past week I've played with SanDisk's Sansa TakeTV (pictured), which struck me as a nice compromise between disc burning and home networking. It's a USB drive that works best with some nifty SanDisk software and a dedicated website called Fanfare. Plug the drive into your computer, call up the Fanfare site, click on a show you'd like to watch, and it downloads onto the drive. When the download's finished, you unplug the USB drive, walk it over to a cradle that's connected to your TV, and plug it in. At that point, watching a downloaded show is just a matter of browsing through the device's contents and clicking on the title you want to see. The site is still in beta, which means that all the content is being offered without charge. At some point, though, price tags will start getting attached, at least to the long-form programming.

I was impressed by the ease of use, and I can see how the device could be tweaked to meet the same standards for protecting content that the Apple TV and CSS-encrypted discs do. It may have trouble winning over masses of consumers, however, for a couple of reasons. One is the time it takes to download content. The episode of "Dexter" I downloaded, for example, took almost as long to download through my DSL connection as it did to watch -- despite using enough compression to occasionally inject visible artifacts into an otherwise appealing picture. (I'd rate the picture quality on filmed material as somewhere between VHS and DVD; on animated content, it was better.) The TakeTV also is standard-definition only, probably because a high-def version would cost significantly more (the current models are a 4GB unit for $99 and an 8GB one for $149) and involve much longer download times. Both of those problems, of course, will fade over time, so maybe that's not so great a hurdle.

Another, more serious, drawback for the device is the lack of support from major movie studios, at least so far. Fanfare offers content from Showtime (a network that's been truly Net friendly), CBS and a couple of cable networks, plus Jaman's indie- and foreign-film download service. It would be nice to see new programs from more networks and a major studio or two; otherwise, TakeTV buyers who want to move hit shows and films from the Net to the TV will have to content themselves mainly with the bootlegged versions.

The TakeTV photo is courtesy of SanDisk.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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