LoveFilm and Silverlight

Yesterday, LoveFilm announced that they are changing the technology which powers their film streaming service. From early in January the existing Flash-based system will be replaced by one which uses Microsoft’s Silverlight technology. This is extremely disappointing for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there’s the immediate technological fallout. Silverlight doesn’t run on as many platforms as Flash does. Anyone running an older (non-Intel) Mac will no longer be able to use this service. Neither will people running Linux on their PC. This also means that people trying to access the service on an Android device will be out of luck. I don’t know how many of LoveFilm’s customers this will affect, but it can’t be a trivial number.

But it’s the second reason that makes me even more depressed. And that’s the reasoning behind the decision. Paul Thompson, the project manager for the streaming service says this:

We’ve been asked to make this change by the Studios who provide us with the films in the first place, because they’re insisting – understandably – that we use robust security to protect their films from piracy, and they see the Silverlight software as more secure than Flash.

Simply put: without meeting their requirements, we’d suddenly have next-to-no films to stream online.

This is a change that the company have been forced into by the studios who make the films that LoveFilm want to stream. The studios believe that their content needs to be protected from piracy and that Silverlight provides a higher level of security than Flash does.

They’re probably right. But they’re fighting the wrong battle.

Remember when all the digital music that you could buy had DRM? Remember what a pain it was keeping track of how to play particular tracks or which devices your were allowed to play them on? Or perhaps you don’t remember that because you were sensible enough to steer clear of that madness. Perhaps you did what most people did and just ripped your CDs or *ahem* “acquired” music from elsewhere. Eventually the record companies realised that they were fighting a battle that they couldn’t win and now we all happily buy MP3s with no DRM. Well, I say “all”, but one of the fallouts from this battle is that a generation grew up with no experience of paying for music. There are still a large number of people who think nothing of downloading music of dubious provenance rather than buying it from Amazon or iTunes. If the record companies had seen sense earlier, they might have not lost an entire generation’s worth of income.

And that’s apparently where we see ourselves again now. The film studios think they are protecting their content, but actually they are training people to go elsewhere. I would love to be able to buy digital copies of films to download or to rent access to streaming versions, but they need to be DRM-free versions that I can use as I want to use them. Not crippled versions that I can only use on devices and in ways that are approved by the studios. And if the studios are going to stop suppliers from giving me what I want, then I’ll go elsewhere. It’s not as if it’s hard to track down versions of any film or TV show that has ever been released on DVD. Or shown on a digital TV channel. We all know where to get these things, right? And we all use them. Because we’re being trained to believe that it’s the easiest way to get hold of this content. And when the easiest way is also the cheapest way, the studios lose out.

It’s not just the film studios who are re-fighting the same battle. Book publishers are doing the same thing. Pretty much any Kindle book that you buy from Amazon will have DRM. The publishers are following exactly the same short-sighted logic and reaching the same flawed conclusions. They have a slight advantage over the record labels and film studios as their old-style product is a lot harder to rip into digital format. But the arguments against what they’re doing are just as valid. Kindle book DRM has been broken repeatedly. And once the DRM is removed from just one copy of a product,  the producer of that product has lost the game.

Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The film studios and the publishers are repeating the mistakes that the record labels were making last decade. They run the risk of alienating and losing the support of a whole generation of potential customers.

Update: I should point out that there is a Linux port of Silverlight called Moonlight. But, as I understand it, it doesn’t support the DRM features that LoveFilm would be relying on.


Leaving LoveFilm

Earlier this week I closed my LoveFilm account. It’s a shame as I’ve been a customer for a long time, but I really couldn’t justify continuing to pay them £13 a month.

The LoveFilm service has two problems. A small one and a big one.

The small one is that I have a wide taste in films. This means that when they send me two random films from my list there’s a better than even chance that I won’t really be in the mood to watch at least one of them. As an extreme example, I once had a Mike Leigh film for about six weeks before I was in the right mood for it.

But that’s just a tiny problem. I could ignore that if it wasn’t for the other problem.

The second, and far larger problem, is the inherent fragility of physical media. And the stupidity of the general public.

The older ones amongst you will remember the excitement that came with the introduction of CDs. You will have seen things like Tomorrow’s World presenters spreading jam on CDs and still being able to play them (or maybe I imagined that). After decades of fragile vinyl records we finally had a medium for music storage that was nigh-on indestructible.

Of course, it turned out that this was bollocks. Sure, CDs were harder-wearing than vinyl had been, but it was still possible (easy, even) to damage them. And when DVDs followed using similar manufacturing technology, they proved to be just as fragile as CDs.

All of which means that if you lend a DVD to several random members of the public, then it will get dirty and damaged. And before too long it will become unplayable. Of course that wouldn’t be a problem if people were careful about looking after DVDs, but in my experience that’s never going to happen. The DVDs that LoveFilm get back will often be covered in smudges and scratches. And in some cases, they will no longer play.

So there’s a good chance that you’ll be sent a DVD from LoveFilm that just doesn’t work. Often it’ll just be a bit grubby and a quick wipe with a cleaning cloth will fix the problem (but it’s still an issue if it doesn’t affect the film until you’re 45 minutes into it). Other times, no amount of cleaning will fix the problem. We had a copy of Before the Rains recently which had huge pock-marks in the surface. It wouldn’t even load the disk menu,

LoveFilm say that they check all disks before they are sent out. But clearly this is a process that doesn’t scale. I suspect that actually they check a random sample of the disks. And that the problem is so bad that plenty of damaged disks still get sent out.

I estimate that over the last six months or so, about one in three of the disks that I get from LoveFilm have some problem. In most cases it’s just a case of whipping the disk out and cleaning it, but enough of the disks are proving to be unplayable that I decided I had to cancel my membership.

And cancelling your membership isn’t easy. You can’t do it over on their web site. You need to phone them up. And you speak to someone in an Indian call-centre whose job is to get you to reconsider by offering you special deals. I had to repeat “No, please just cancel my account” about four times before I got anywhere. This is a shame as it gives a bad impression of the company. And all the previous customer service I’ve got from LoveFilm (largely through their excellent Twitter account) has been exemplary.

I don’t expect to be parted from LoveFilm for too long. They already have a streaming service. But it’s only available to subscribers to the physical media service. Once they follow Netflix into offering streaming-only subscriptions, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back. A Bluray player I bought just before christmas is internet-enabled and already has a LoveFilm application installed (although it’s currently disabled).

It’s worth noting that a streaming service solves both of the problems I mentioned at the start of this piece. Not only does it do away with physical media, but it allows my to choose any film that I want to watch.

In the meantime, I’ll be getting my films at home from other sources. Probably a lot of stuff from FilmFlex . I’m considering adding Sky Movies to my Virgin Media package. I might even go back to my local DVD rental shop (although, that will still have the physical media issue).

Has anyone else left LoveFilm recently? What were your reasons? Where do you get films from now?