Starz’ new digital video subscription and download service Vongo could be Mac-compatible, a Vongo executive told Macworld , presuming Apple has a change of heart in its digital rights management philosophy.
For about $10 per month, subscribers to Vongo will be able to watch and download more than 1,000 movies and other content licensed by Starz Entertainment Group (SEG), the premium cable television network behind channels including Starz and Encore. The service also provides streaming television, access to extreme sports video and music concerts as well.
The service uses digital rights management technology built into Microsoft’s Windows Media Player software, and is compatible with Windows-compatible PCs running Windows 2000 or later. It will also work with portable digital video devices that use a new version of Microsoft’s technology which Microsoft is expected to announce this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mac users who visit the Vongo Web site are greeted with a message that says “Vongo is currently PC based, but will soon be Mac compatible (really!).”
As it turns out, “soon” may be pretty far away, if the current state of affairs is any indication.
“We’ve had several conversations with Apple. We’d like to develop for the Macintosh and we’re thinking throughout how to do that,” said Bob Greene, SEG’s senior vice president, advanced services.
Subscribe or purchase?
Greene said that Vongo is “waiting hear back” from Apple in terms of their interest. What’s at stake isn’t trivial: It’s the basis of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology that drives music and videos sold through the iTunes Music Store. Such content is encrypted using FairPlay, Apple’s DRM scheme which limits the number of times a song can be burned to CD, or what devices can play back music and videos purchased through iTunes.
“We’ve built this so the client can work on a Macintosh. The real issue is the DRM: The FairPlay DRM doesn’t support subscription models,” Greene said.
Like other Windows Media-based entertainment services, Vongo enables users to pay a flat rate every month. In return, they can watch whatever videos they want, and can download and view videos on their computer and portable devices — but they have to continue paying a monthly fee to see them.
By comparison, once you buy a video, TV show or song from the iTunes Music Store, it’s yours to keep on any machine authorized to play it.
This is a core philosophical difference between Apple’s transaction model and the system that’s becoming increasingly popular among Windows Media-based services. Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said that “people want to own their music,” not rent it.
With Apple selling videos for the iPod, could it be time to revisit this decision?
“Ownership of music that you play over and over again makes sense,” Greene admits. “But I think that [Apple] will find with movies subscriptions are the way to go. Music is a different animal.”
“Movies have always been sold in a subscription environment, starting all the way back with premium television,” said Greene. “Music tends to be in the background, where movies are different: You stop and watch them.”
With its dependence on Windows Media technology and its subscription-based model, Vongo may not appeal to everyone, and that’s fine with Greene.
“There isn’t one solution for every piece of content,” said Greene. “There are some movies worth renting, and others worth buying and keeping.”
The strength of Vongo’s offering comes from its relationship to Starz and Encore, said Greene.
“We’re able to leverage our studio relationships so we can dive into all the movies we’ve licensed. And the big difference is that unlike cable, Vongo isn’t limited by a calendar schedule,” he said.
And in addition to the flat monthly fee, Vongo will also allow subscribers to pay for Pay-Per-View movies and events, for about $4 each.
Success without the iPod?
With its dependence on Windows DRM, Vongo video content won’t work on the iPod — the number-one selling portable music player on the market, which just last October gained the ability to play video.
Regardless, said Greene, Vongo doesn’t perceive the iTunes Music Store or the video iPod as competitors. “The more activity that Apple generates in terms of downloads will benefit us, as well,” he said.
“We had made this decision well over a year ago,” said Greene, long before Apple introduced the video iPod. “We believed in portable video back then.”
The recent success of the video iPod simply bolstered Vongo’s decision, he added. “It’s just more validation of the value of taking video content with you, and we were very happy to see it come out,” said Greene.