The launch of the Xbox Live Marketplace video store is part of Microsoft's current strategy to draw non-gamers to the platform, migrate "version 1" Xbox users to the newer Xbox 360 system and keep the 360 competitive with the upcoming Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii consoles.
Although pricing and the full lineup have not yet been announced, Microsoft says that high-definition movies would be available as video-on-demand content. You would download it onto the Xbox 360's hard drive; once you begin watching the film, you would have 24 hours to finish. Warner Bros. titles will include V for Vendetta, The Perfect Storm and when it is released for video-on-demand Superman Returns. At the end of each movie viewing, users will see a promotion to buy an HD DVD disc of the movie, compatible with the Xbox 360's $200 add-on HD DVD movie player.
CBS will offer high-def episodes of CSI, NCIS and Numbers for purchase. That will mark the first instance of major network or studio content retailed online in HD. (CBS will sell other shows in standard definition on Xbox Live Marketplace, including Survivor.)
Movies may reach 4GB in size, and will be encoded in the "720p" high-def spec, which means each widescreen frame will have a pixel resolution of 1,280 x 720. Where possible, the files will include a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround-sound track. The files will take 6 or 7 hours to download over a cable broadband connection, according to Microsoft. However, given the wide variety of household Internet connections, your own experience may be better or worse. By comparison, the standard-definition feature-length films currently available on Apple's iTunes Store are generally just under 1.5GB in size.
Hourlong high-definition TV episodes will be around 2GB, still large given the fact that the Xbox 360's hard drive is only 20GB. For that reason, Xbox Live Marketplace will keep track of purchases in a virtual "locker." You can delete content on your own drive and still have full viewing rights to it. In fact, you can log onto any Xbox 360 and download your own content, though as soon as you log off again, the content goes off limits.
The movies and TV shows will only be playable on Xbox 360 consoles. The service will not be available to owners of the first Xbox console, nor will the video downloads be accessible to PCs, even if your Xbox 360 is networked to your PC to share other video content. Microsoft also confirmed that the purchases will not be compatible with its upcoming Zune media player, which will have its own Internet-based retail service for music downloads.
Many companies including Microsoft competitors Apple, Amazon.com and Google are getting into the video distribution business. Microsoft's ace is that the Xbox 360 is already connected to the TV, a hurdle others try to overcome by marketing multimedia set-top boxes or creating unwieldy hardware partnerships. Microsoft expects the number of Xbox 360 consoles to number 10 million by Jan. 1, the lion's share of which will likely be connected to the Xbox Live network. It's tough to declare a winner with so many services in such early forms, but it's a safe bet that Microsoft could grow its Xbox Live Marketplace movie and TV store as a side attraction to the videogame business for quite some time.