A Deeper Look at Wal-Mart's Digital Downloads Service

Wal-Mart has landed what at first blush appears to be a solid punch to Apple’s gut, signing a deal with all six major movie studios for movie downloads, a feat the inventor of the marketplace couldn’t achieve. Apple landed the first contracts to sell movies over iTunes, but not all studios got on board. So how did Wal-Mart convince the hold-outs to join in the game? With built-in suckiness. Wal-Mart doesn’t want you to actually download media from its website, you see. Wal-Mart wants to frustrate you into buying physical CDs. No, really, let’s think about it.

Why would Wal-Mart’s sevice suck so bad? And yes, it does suck. Simply put, it rolled over. Before they’d let even Wal-Mart begin with digital downloads, the studios wanted full DRM control, sub-DVD quality, and a pretty penny for each download. This is because they see a potential marketplace, but don’t see a viable business model yet. It’s there, but they’re not willing to let it threaten their bread and butter business. Thus the crappy downloads. Let’s look at the store itself.

If you really want a copy of The Wedding Crashers from Wal-Mart’s dowloadable media store, you can have it, provided you’re willing to pay $19.98 for the download. It’s the same cost as the DVD, which the retailer sells at a loss. But you’re not getting a DVD, you’re getting a video which is only available in a 320×240 in Windows Media format featuring the latest version of WM’s DRM scheme, rendering it useless on machine running anything but Windows XP.

But that’s probably fine, as the only way to navigate the site is with Internet Explorer, something few users on non-Windows machines use anyway. But even if you are willing to use the buggy, insecure browser, and you download the comedy, you still can’t watch it on your iPod (or even your Zune). It will, however, play on a PlaysForSure device, if its your sort of thing. But if you’re the type who’s OK with this crap, you’re not the type who’s going to try watching downloaded content on your TV anyway, so why not just pick up the DVD next time you’re getting your Twinkies? That’s the plan, using the store as a way to shore up sagging in-store DVD sales (and buff up the profits of said discs), and it’s the plan the studios have been salivating over.

In all, it’s good that Wal-Mart was able to score the deal, it means that the studios aren’t totally against the idea of a new delivery method for their content, but therein lies the problem: they still view it as their content. If I give you $20 for a movie, pal, it’s now my content. When they get that, and hopefully they will, then digital downloads will be viable. Until then, also-rans that make us buy physical discs are a threat to nobody, except perhaps themselves.

Wal-Mart Media Downloads [Wal-Mart, IE Only (no, really)]