Hollywood’s UltraViolet offers an alternative to iTunes

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Apple’s iTunes store continues to be the main way consumers buy movies online. Even with increasing competition from the likes of Amazon, Vudu and others, iTunes still reigns supreme as the top digital storefront when it comes to renting and purchasing movies online. But that might soon change, as the three-year-old UltraViolet initiative is finally coming to market with a product that will let users purchase a piece of content and watch it across a number of devices, and even online video services.

With the release of Horrible Bosses from Warner Home Entertainment on Tuesday, viewers will be able take ownership of a digital title across multiple devices without having to transfer huge files. And soon, they will be able to stream the movie from a number of different digital storefronts, or they will be able to download the file to a mobile phone or tablet to take it on the go.

Of course, viewers who live within the Apple ecosystem — those with iPhones and iPads, Apple TVs and an iTunes account — have been able to do most of this already. According to the latest numbers from IHS iSuppli, iTunes had nearly two-thirds of the online movie market in the first half of this year. And with Apple’s iCloud launch imminent, the company will make accessing and transferring movie files even easier.

But iTunes doesn’t play well with non-Apple devices. That means that if you have an Android tablet, you won’t be able to take your movie on the go. And if you don’t have an Apple TV set-top box, forget about watching an iTunes movie on the big screen.

UltraViolet is Hollywood’s first real effort at breaking the Apple stranglehold. The idea is that by implementing a digital rights locker, the studios involved (basically all the majors except Disney) will enable viewers to purchase a piece of content once and watch it on potentially any device with a web connection. In essence, consumers will be able to store their purchases in the cloud and access them from anywhere.

Sounds good in theory, but in practice the initial launch is a bit lacking. For the Horrible Bosses release, Warner Bros. has teed up availability on mobile devices through its Flixster apps, but no other applications or digital stores are on board — yet. Hopefully that will change when other partners, like Vudu, come on board and enable viewing across other devices, like connected TVs.

As a first-time user, you’ll need to create a Flixster account, open an UltraViolet account and link it to Flixster, and enter a 12-digit redemption code from the Blu-ray disc to gain digital access. It’s a five-step process, but the good news is that once those accounts are set up, you won’t have to enter that information again.

Finally, there’s the physical media aspect of the launch. Today, the only way to score an UltraViolet-enabled digital copy of a movie like Horrible Bosses is to buy a physical DVD or Blu-ray disc. That’s because currently, there aren’t any digital-only storefronts available. Again, Vudu and digital stores like Best Buy’s CinemaNow are soon expected to offer their own UltraViolet-enabled products, but in the meantime requiring a DVD or Blu-ray purchase to gain digital access seems a bit counterintuitive.

Hopefully, the rolling launch of UltraViolet partners and capabilities will fulfill the promise of the initiative’s charter. In the meantime, however, it seems unlikely that UltraViolet will make much headway in combatting Apple’s digital dominance.

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