Since you’re reading this on an internet somewhere you’re likely to have noticed that the current trend in trying to get us all to start paying for our media again is to make accessing it as easy as possible. Take Spotify: free at the point of use (if you can get an invite) with adverts interrupting your music to cover their revenue. You can have ad-free playing for just £9.99 a month. Now, you may have heard various e-whisperings about Spotify being up the revenue stream without a royalty paddle because no-one’s paying for it and indeed they only have 320,000 paying subscribers. That feels like a number that should be higher, especially when you learn they have around 7 million actual users. But that’s all as maybe. For the moment it still exists and my guess is that it’s not going anywhere. This is because Daniel Ek, the 26-year-old CEO of Spotify, clearly understands the experience he needs to deliver. I invoke his philosophy here only because I think Blinkbox could do with taking note:
Ek said he wanted “music to be like water”, flowing easily from device to device. “The key with Spotify, is that it will enable your music library on all kind of devices, whether it’s a phone, set-top box or games console,” said Ek, appealing to the tech-savy crowd with the opinion that “if music, legally, could be on any device in a way that’s as simple as it is to get music from iTunes to the iPhone, then the music industry would be radically bigger.”
I know this is the right approach because I am non-paying Spotify user who thinks £9.99 a month to be able to stream music without adverts only on my PC is a joke. I wouldn’t own that music, I would simply have access to it. That is access I already have because I have the internet, which I already pay for. However, if when I left the house, the music accessible on my computer were available on my iPod wherever I went, and then when I got to my friend’s house it was there on his Xbox, or when I just went downstairs it was available through my set top box – in other words, if it really was all-pervasive (see water analogy) – I would pay for it. And before you decide I am made from 100% moron, I am aware that Spotify Premium users can listen to all that music on their iPhones. If I had one, or if I could do that on my BlackBerry, I would pay.
What I would be paying for is convenience. Putting aside the legal and moral arguments about torrenting, it’s simply more effort than using Spotify, and that – not its illegality – is its Achilles heel. Mr Ek understands this; Mr Blinkbox does not.
Launched in 2008, Blinkbox works on the premise that we will be prepared to either pay up to around £10 (most things are much cheaper) to rent or buy movies or TV programmes, or pay nothing but endure endless adverts to watch a far smaller selection of material for nothing. Even setting aside the complicated website, frustrating download experience and bizarre selections of available material, I just don’t believe people are going to buy this in any sense. If only 320,000 are prepared to pay £9.99 a month to access a huge selection of music, why would the same number or higher be prepared to pay between £1.99 and £10 each time they want to watch a film? For £9.99 a month you can get unlimited rentals from LoveFilm.com, although only one disc at a time. But if you fancied watching Watchmen, Inglorious Basterds and Avatar this month, Blinkbox would require £18.97 from you. In fact, none of the pricing really makes sense. There are some bargains in there: you could rent Syriana, Three Kings and The Machinist for £0.99 each, but the relatively obscure and completely dreadful Vice Versa is £5.99 to buy, with no option to rent. Why?
I was pretty excited when I noticed the decade selection bar that goes from 2010 down to ‘1950s or earlier’. I wasn’t disappointed when I saw old episodes of Popeye, Betty Boop and Tom and Jerry in there either. The 1970s category also contains some unexpected gems: Marvin Gaye, Fats Domino, The Beach Boys. But my immediate reaction was, why? Maybe it’s just me. See what you think. The free 1980s category contains 10 titles: The Young Ones, Super Dimension Fortress Macross (me neither), Around the World in 80 Days, The Day of the Triffids, The Beach Boys, Boy George, TJ Hooker Minisodes, James Brown, Joe Cocker and A Tribute To Count Basie. What on earth are the selection criteria? It’s like there’s been an explosion down your local HMV and this stuff is just lying in the street. I can see no stronger link.
The problem is not just the confusion this creates but that at no point, therefore, is a group of people, having decided they want to watch any specific thing, going to think, ‘I know! Blinkbox!’, because you won’t know. You’ll have no idea. At a push you might go on there to check; more likely you’ll just torrent it. Not only that, but torrenting a film*, from start to finish, is a thousand times easier than downloading a film from Blinkbox. The process is as follows: you click buy, you click next, you click purchase, you click ‘Download to PC’, you have to install the Blinkbox download manager (8.37 mb), Internet Explorer asks if you want to install it, you say yes, you click install again, you choose save or run, it downloads, installs (with all the usual Windows hilarity), you bring the web page back up, you click download, Windows asks if you meant this, you say you did, Blinkbox download manager opens, the show begins to download (usually), you go to your videos folder, open it and begin watching. Except you don’t because it’s a protected .wmv file, so then once you’ve realised you can’t play it in VLC but have to open Windows Media Player, it then presents you with a box into which you have to enter your Blinkbox username and password in compliance with Microsoft’s horrendous Digital Rights Management software. If you do this correctly, you can press play and watch the film you paid for now roughly two hours ago.
Films have been shot in less time. In fact it takes less time to watch some of the clips than it does to download them. Given that getting people to use this kind of thing is all about ease of access, this is Not Good.
You’d only have to install the download manager once though, right? Well kind of, except the second time I went to do it I had to re-download it because it needed updating, which just made the obvious question resound louder: what is the point of a download manager? I know the files are DRM protected but that doesn’t prevent them from just utilising the current download manager everybody uses that’s already built into Windows.
Blinkbox is a site desperately in need of a Unique Selling Point, or at least an obvious reason to go there. It needs to have something that would make a group of people think, ‘Oh, let’s use Blinkbox, it’ll have that.’ But in some ways it already does. I’ve never seen a site with such a fascinatingly obscure archive of material. Initially it’s genuinely exciting to browse. It’s badly organised and incredibly patchy but nonetheless, where else are you going to go for 1950s cartoons or the TV series of Robocop? I would venture that a properly organised site offering otherwise hard to find retro nuggets from decades past, with a monthly subscription or free with ads, might be very popular. I suspect this is not Blinkbox’s aim, however, and I fear it will suffer as a result.