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CinemaNow phones in movies

Cinemanow_logo This morning, CinemaNow announced a mobile version of its downloadable movie site. Happily, the point isn't to supply movies to your cell phone (not that there's anything wrong with that). Instead, it lets people use their phones to order movies and have them delivered electronically to their PC or a variety of other devices.

The novel feature, which is powered by uVumobile, is probably ahead of its time. I can imagine a day when consumers routinely use their phones to tap into Web-based services and manage their home electronics (e.g., dialing into the home thermostat as you leave the office), but it's not coming soon. More significantly, the announcement shows how CinemaNow is addressing one of its biggest problems: how hard it can be to transfer a film from your PC to your TV or portable player.

The difficulties stem from the major Hollywood studios' restrictions on DVD burning and CinemaNow's incompatibility with Apple products. For the most part, CinemaNow's movies have been confined to computers and devices capable of handling Microsoft's DRM. To watch a downloaded movie on a TV set, users could hook the set to a Windows computer or transfer the movie file through a home network to a Microsoft-powered set-top box (e.g., the XBox 360) or Internet-enabled TV (e.g., the HP MediaSmart sets). But only a fraction of the movie-watching public is ready or willing to take such steps.

About a year ago, CinemaNow decided to broaden its approach. It started striking deals with a range of companies that made portable players, set-top boxes, media servers and Internet-enabled TVs. Some relied on Microsoft's DRM; others, such as EchoStar, had their own copy-protection technology that didn't work with Microsoft's. To accommodate the incompatible DRMs, CinemaNow developed a new system that allows users to create a "pseudo domain" with multiple registered devices, each of which could download films. Customers can use their PCs or cell phones to direct a file they rent or buy to any of those devices. If they later decide to watch it on a different device, the CinemaNow software can download a second copy directly to the other player at no additional charge (assuming the license to the content permits it). Downloading a new copy might take a little longer than transferring it through the home network, but it eliminates the technical challenges of transcrypting and transcoding the files. In other words, rather than trying to make competing DRMs interoperable, CinemaNow's approach gives users a way to circumvent the problem.

Cook said the bulk of CinemaNow's technical and product-management efforts this year would focus on making it easier to enjoy the company's content on something other than a PC. The first iteration of this effort -- enabling cell phones to order films -- worked pretty much as promised. I used the mobile site to order a movie for my laptop with just a few clicks, and the laptop started downloading it almost immediately with no intervention on my part. The test for CinemaNow will be whether its deals can get it into enough products to be useful to consumers -- e.g., DVD players, satellite receivers, cable boxes and a wide range of audio-visual equipment. Otherwise, the phrase "pseudo domain" will convey something less appealing than the company intended.

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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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