Sony betting big on 4K, launches Video Unlimited 4K download service

Technology is a fickle mistress and no-company knows it better than Sony(s sne). There was a time when its television sets were a fixture in every upwardly mobile household. Sony game consoles were on every teenage boy’s Christmas wish-list and many of us grew up plugging into the Sony Walkman. It was a company that at one time was awe inspiring and amazing for even the late Steve Jobs.

Nothing lasts forever, especially when it comes to companies that get complacent and lose their way. Nimbler, hungrier rivals, new technologies and better manufacturing technologies eat away at even the mightiest of them all. And that is what happened to Sony, which lost its pre-eminence to Samsung, Apple(s aapl), Microsoft(s msft) and Google(s goog).

A dismal future awaited Sony if it didn’t do something drastic, in its case, focusing and betting on its core strengths – especially video technology, thanks to being a big player in television. Of course, what it was notoriously bad at was developing video standards and then getting traction with competitors and/or content creators. Remember Betamax?

For its turnaround, the company is betting on video-visual technology, called 4K Ultra HD. From a consumer standpoint, it is what comes after the HDTVs. The 4K Ultra HD represents an ultra high-definition resolution of 3840 pixels x 2160 lines, and 4K comes from the number of horizontal pixels. (In comparison, for the 1080p HDTVs the number represents the number of vertical pixels.) An increasing number of companies are releasing 4K products (including some at the IFA show being held in Berlin this week.


Sony’s Big Week

It is a big week for Sony too — today the company is unveiling a new video download service, that is the final step in the 4K journey it started way back in 2005 when Sony first introduced 4K cinema projectors. Sony today announced a brand new 4K video download service, Video Unlimited 4K. For now, it is available only in the United States, but Sony has plans to eventually make it available everywhere.

Sony also introduced two new 4K television models (55 inch and 65 inch screens) and lowered the prices on some of its older 4K televisions. The new download service in the early days will have about 70 full-length native 4K Ultra HD feature films and TV shows. By the end of 2013, the number of available movies is going to increase to about 100.


The Video Unlimited 4K service would require a 4K Ultra HD Media Player (FMP-X1) for one to either rent or purchase the content  — thhe cost for TV episodes is $3.99 and feature films start at $7.99 for a 24-hour rental, or $29.99 for a purchase. The media player is one big honking home server that comes with 2 TB of storage and costs a whopping $700 a pop. It does come pre-loaded with 10 bonus feature films.

The $700 dollar home media server isn’t the only expensive component of the 4K ecosystem. Even the lower-range televisions will cost more than $3000 a pop, while the higher-end 4K TVs can set you back more than twice as much. 4K is clearly an early adopter product. Not for long.

It’s the Ecosystem Baby

Sony Electronics President and COO Phil Molyneux in an interview said Sony’s approach was to systematically go after the entire video food chain — from displays to cinemas to professional video cameras to consumer devices. “We now have the whole 4K ecosystem, from production to projection to download service to media servers and televisions,” he boasted.

Sony wants every Sony product — Experia tablets, VAIO laptops, Experia phones, video camcorders — to support 4K, a technology it has nurtured for nearly a decade. Many of its products are already 4K-ready. Sony sees it as a way to overcome its past problems and leapfrog rivals. The new video download service is the last piece of the puzzle. It had to build its own because none of the regular video download services are ready just yet. Since Sony has access to a vast video library, it has been able to make movies and television shows available at 4K.

Still, 70 titles is a drop in the bucket — we are all used to basically getting unlimited access to tens of thousands of videos on Netflix and Amazon. The paucity of content is going to be a challenge for Sony, but Molyneux said Sony has graphics technology built into its devices that can up-convert 1080p images to near-4K, including Blu-ray HD movies. It is hard to judge the quality of the up-converted videos, without spending time looking at those screens.

The Broadband Challenge

Sony XBR-X850A w. FMP-X1 and VU4K

The lack of content isn’t the only challenge facing Sony and its download service. 4K movie downloads are big and bulky — about 45-60GB per film. That volume of content is like a whole pig moving through a python. Our broadband networks are puny and imagine the time it will take for a movie to download, not to mention how these downloads are going to impact the bandwidth caps that are being imposed by US broadband providers.

Molyneux acknowledged that, while the fat files are a challenge, new compression technologies such as the High Efficiency Video Coding standard (HEVC) will help deliver 50 percent more compression (similar quality at half the bit-rate) than the H.264 standard used for video-on-demand. Using a rough yardstick, a 4K movie encoded in H.264 needs about 18-20 Mbps for downloading. HEVC can halve the bandwidth requirement and thus should help with the internet-based distribution of 4K video content, Molyneux said.

vcsPRAsset_523486_85980_cfda6f66-661a-41ce-b803-d426f6727c3e_0Despite, his assurances, for me this is the biggest roadblock for adoption of 4K in the US. Unless Sony figures out a way to work with broadband providers such as Verizon FiOS and Comcast and persuades them to not count the Video Download 4K against customer’s monthly bandwidth caps, the careful planning of Sony will come to a naught.

There are many 4K doubters, especially in Europe. And perhaps that explains why Sony is making a big push in North America.

Sony, which is using compression technology from Palo Alto-based eyeIO, obviously thinks otherwise and believes that it has timed everything right — the bandwidth availability and compression technology are both ready for 4K content and screens. The numbers seems to back Sony — the worldwide shipments of 4K televisions are going to rise from next to nothing this year to over 7 million units over the next three years, according to NPD Display Research.

“People think it is going to take three to four years, but we believe the transition to 4K is going to happen much faster,” said Molyneux. “It is the format for the future.”

It is a bet Sony can’t afford to lose — not again!