Buy Once, Play Anywhere (Update: It actually works well!)

Microsoft often talks about the three screens, Television, Computer, and Phone, and how the Zune Marketplace brings them together. Renting movies is a perfect example of this “buy once, play anywhere” theory, but knowing how to use it may not be apparent to the end user.

From your computer (you can’t buy videos directly from Windows Phone 7) you can purchase or rent popular and classic movies through the Zune Marketplace. These rentals last for 14 days, but once you start playing the rental, you must finish watching it within 24 hours. That is a typical rule for online movie rentals and is perfectly acceptable. However, buying things is done through the Microsoft Points system, which can be frustrating since you have to buy certain intervals of points instead of simply paying for the movie. When you rent a movie, Microsoft’s “three screens” idea can sort of be seen: you have the option to rent the movie on your computer, your Windows Phone, or your Xbox 360 (television).

This is flawed, however, because once you choose to watch it on one device, you can’t switch to watching it on another. So say you rented a movie and selected to rent it on your Windows Phone, but then after your trip you get back home and still have half of the movie to watch. Ideally, you would want to finish that half on your computer or television, but there’s no way to switch your rented movie back onto the computer!

Thankfully, you can seamlessly switch between watching a rented movie on your phone and your computer. Doing so is a bit of a mystery at first, because once you put a rented movie on your phone, it disappears from your computer’s video collection. What you have to do is revisit the video Marketplace, find the movie that you rented, and click Rent again, as if you are going to buy it all over again. But when the purchasing window pops up, it will have a Restore button! Just click Restore and you can start streaming the movie on your computer! The three screens are truly united. The path to finding this utopia isn’t clear, but once you know how, you can definitely enjoy the sweet icing on the Marketplace.

Microsoft’s “buy once, play anywhere” also works with movies that you purchase instead of renting. Once you buy a movie, you can instantly stream it to your computer, download it to your computer, sync it to your phone, or watch it on your Xbox. If they expanded that system to their rentals, it would be perfect.

One oddity is that you can’t rent movies directly from your Windows Phone. Instead, they have to be paid for and downloaded by a computer and then synchronized to your phone. Why not let us rent and watch movies on the fly? Netflix lets you watch movies instantly over 3G and WiFi, but Microsoft unfortunately doesn’t let you live this mobile life. Also, renting/buying movies in HD seems impossible; the Zune software says it is available in HD, but never gives you the option to buy it in HD. In time, these flaws might be fixed (except the Microsoft Points system,  which they seem to be keeping), but even with the imperfections, their online movie store is a positive step forward for Microsoft and multi-screen multimedia world.

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