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2/6/2007
07:07 PM
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Wal-Mart Debuts Video Downloads To Online Catcalls

Critics have their field day with the retail company's first volley into digital video delivery.

Wal-Mart today unveiled a beta version of its new video download service to the collective contempt of the online elite.

The new service joins an already crowded film download market that includes Apple's iTunes Store, Amazon's Unbox, CinemaNow, Movielink, and NetFlix. Its most notable feature is that it includes more than 3,000 titles from the six major Hollywood studios, represented by 20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, and Warner Bros, as well as Lionsgate and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

Apple's iTunes Store includes a mere 250 feature films and 350 television shows.

Yet, it's what Wal-Mart had to give up to bring Hollywood onboard that has online observers fuming.

"But what's really damning about the store is its complete abandonment of Wal-Mart's founding principles," writes Owen Thomas for the Business 2.0 blog. "The store charges prices from $12.88 to $19.88 -- nearly identical to Wal-Mart's in-store DVD prices, and about 30% higher than what Apple charges for the Disney and Paramount movies it sells on iTunes."

On GigaOm.com, business writer Om Malik likens Wal-Mart's foray into movie downloads to Enron's ill-fated push into broadband. He declares Apple and Steve Jobs the winner in this contest before Wal-Mart has even left the starting line.

Ken Fisher, writing for online tech publication Ars Technica, says that despite the price, the "feature set is still depressingly weak: no burnable DVDs, no easy sharing among your devices, no high-definition." He predicts that Wal-Mart's poor performance could benefit Apple and calls the service "underwhelming."

The inability to burn downloads to a DVD is a weakness also cited by media market researcher Cynthia Brumfield at the IP Democracy blog. "Until online film distributors offer users the option of watching feature-length films somewhere else aside from their desktops or laptops, don't expect this to be a big business for Wal-Mart or any other online film seller," she writes.

Blogging for Boing Boing, reporter Xeni Jardin notes that Wal-Mart's download service looks like a jumble of illegible text when viewed using the Firefox browser. "After a few deep bong hits, the rich layers of overlapping text probably make sense, as would the notion of paying $20 for a 240X320 movie in a DRM-laden Windows Media file that won't play on Zune, PSP, iPod, or computers running Mac or Linux," she observes.

Hewing to the standards of traditional journalism, New York Times writer Michael Barbaro offers less opinionated coverage, allowing only that "supremacy in the digital movie business could prove elusive for Wal-Mart."

Wal-Mart's divisional merchandise manager for digital media Kevin Swint, however, has nothing but praise for his company's effort. He calls it "a significant step for Wal-Mart in home video" and describes the service as "an unprecedented offering of video content" that's "currently unmatched in the market."

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