I’ve been playing around with the new beta version of the Voddler movie on demand service from Sweden, and I’m really rather impressed. They’re trying to pitch it as the Spotify for movies – maybe it’s the Swedish connection – and there’s definitely a bit of truth in there, but as with everything to do with media, it’s going to end up being all about the content baby, as other companies have learned to their cost. The service is based around a P2P delivery tech, so each user needs to download and install a small client (Windows currently, Mac to follow). It’s simple to get set up, and you can be watching in minutes. So what’s good and what’s bad?
Remember Joost? Yeah, the original poster child for Web delivered television stuff. Our verdict back in early 2007 was ‘um…ok…video quality a little better than average YouTube.’ Well guess what, 2.x years later the video quality issue has gone away for the newcomer. Voddler delivers streaming movies over normal broadband at a quality level which is simply astonishing. The images are as crisp and lag free as satellite, cable or terrestrial broadcast, and more to the point, the image still looks great when your laptop is hooked up to a standard flat screen TV set. Wow, what a difference a couple of years make.
It’s not HD perfect of course, there are still noticeable compression artifacts at certain points, but overall the experience is no different than watching conventional television, the initial buffering is almost non-existent and the stream comes online instantly (aided in part, I suspect, by some pre-buffering during the mandatory adverts you have to sit through before the movie starts). I particularly like the fact that you can pause, resume movies from the last point and fast forward and rewind. Great user control.
The Not So Good
It’s not really fair to be too damning at this early stage of development, the service is after all in very private beta right now. First impressions are generally pretty good actually, although the use of the open source XBMC Media Center as the front end interface can be confusing at first when you’re used to PC type mouse and button click navigation. In this TV oriented world, it’s only arrow keys, Enter and Esc that get you around, which makes for easier remote control, but also a bit of a learning curve.
The interface is also not as easy to browse as you would think, maybe it’s something to do with keeping things visible at 10 metres, but I found it a little clunky to move around from title to title. There are two views, list and table, and I preferred the former for getting detailed information on each movie, rather than relying on the thumbnail view, but to each his own. Boxee shares the same interface technology, which means users of one will enjoy the transition to the other.
The titles are categorised and sectioned into easy to locate bits, which does help things, so you can move around fairly easily to locate something worth watching without too much difficulty. I guess the problem here is if you really want to equate this with Spotify, you expect an exemplary interface (Spotify has just about the best UI I’ve ever seen in *any* media application) and Voddler doesn’t really come close. It’s just not as fast or intuitive to navigate as you would like, and that’s a fact.
As we’ve said before, the real key to this type of application is content. Joost failed in large part because they couldn’t get enough high quality content to keep people interested, Voddler looks as though it’s learned this lesson and is trying hard to avoid the naff-content fate. The selection of movies in the catalogue presently is relatively small, sure, especially when compared with veteran services like Sky Player, but what’s there is not bad at all, kind of indie, middle shelf interesting movie rental store level. And when you consider the negatives that Sky has going against it, the two can’t compare.
While Sky has the benefit of Murdoch’s majestically comprehensive satellite TV and studio catalogue, it wraps it all up in a disgustingly restricted and complex technology. Microsoft’s Silverlight and the Kontiki DRM tech may please the content owners, but for users they suck. The streaming frame rate is pitifully poor, and the restrictions on use (e.g. only one computer, clunky Windows based UI, geographic limits, mandatory expensive subscription to Sky Movies etc) make it a very poor second to Voddler on the happy-user scale.
So it’s all back to content. If Voddler can grab a reasonably comprehensive and decent quality catalogue of content, even if it’s not at Sky levels, then it’s a winner all the way. If not, then it’s going to be more of an uphill battle. That’s basically why people love Spotify, there’s such a lot of really good music in the catalogue.
At the moment the Voddler service is all about free movies, with a smaller selection of pay per view titles sprinkled around the catalogue, and the company claims that the object is to keep most content free and advertising supported, with the premium stuff there for those who want to avoid DVD rentals fees. Let’s hope their business model geeks have done their sums properly!
Yep, this is one service I’ll be watching (!) closely. The video quality and delivery technology is superb, the interface is usable with a touch of could try harder, and the content is very interesting indeed, even at this early stage. Will I use it? Definitely. There are enough titles on there which look worthwhile to keep me coming back, and as long as the developers keep adding to the catalogue I’ll leave the start button on my desktop. If I get to the stage where I can’t see anything worth watching, then things may start to slide down the Joost route, but I’m an eternal optimist. Very interesting indeed!
The admin UI apparently offers user invites, so I’ll try and see if I can get some invitations out of the company to distribute here. Unfortunately it looks as though you’ve got to be Swedish to get invites at the moment, but I’ll see what I can do.
Voddler can provide unlimited video content distributed to any number of users by streaming. No limitation of content will enable you to have instant access to your old favorite movies as well as the newest blockbusters. Instant access, a user friendly video application and a complete network focused on film will make Voddler the obvious choice for a movie night. The beta version of Voddler is out now.