Why are Sony and Samsung keeping 4K content to themselves?
The decision to make 4K content proprietary displays some truly stunning corporate hubris by two of the biggest players in Ultra HD "4K," potentially sabotaging its very adoption and acceptance.
Both Samsung and Sony, leader and major player in TVs respectively, have huge amounts of money invested in 4K. Right now, 4K TVs represent potentially big profits, not costing that much more to make than 1080p LCDs, yet selling for much higher prices.
One of the main reasons 4K adoption is slow is the lack of content. The same was true with 1080p. So what to do? Well, offer people 4K content. That's logical. And Sony and Samsung are doing just that.
Except...both companies are making the 4K content proprietary. As in, Sony content is unwatchable if you don't have a Sony TV, and Samsung's requires a Samsung TV.
The hardware for the software
In order to entice shoppers to buy a 4K TV, when there's so little 4K content, Sony and Samsung currently offer special 4K media boxes.
Last year's Sony FMP-X1, the first such box, enables a user to download from a selection of more than 200 4K titles from Sony's own library, called Video Unlimited 4K. The service offers titles such as "American Hustle," and "The Amazing Spider-Man," as well as a few TV series, like "The Blacklist" and "Breaking Bad." Pricing for movies is typically $7.99 to rent for 24 hours or $29.99 to buy.
The FMP-X1 was not well received. It has an amusing 2.4/5 rating on Amazon, from 38 reviews. The comments sing such praises as "Don't expect to use it for a while," "I will never purchase another item with the name Sony on it ever again," and "Worst purchase I've ever made." Not only can't you use the X1 with another brand of television, it won't even work with Sony's own 4K projector.
So it's a good thing they're coming out with version 2, the FMP-X10, which in addition to accessing Sony's own library can stream Netflix's 4K content. Available in July, it has a $700 list price (currently $500 for pre-order).
And you still can't use it with any other brand of TV.
Then there's the Samsung CY-SUC105H, the so-called "UHD Video Pack." It's only available through Samsung (or in Best Buy, apparently, but not on their website). It comes with five movies and three documentaries...but that's it, and it's $300. If you pony up for a UNHU9000, currently starting at $3,400 for 55-inches, Samsung will throw in the pack for free.
Samsung says another "pack" is coming later this year. Both will only work with Samsung TVs.
What the what?
I am in no way saying 4K content should initially be cheap or free. That would be great, but let's be real. Early pre-recorded HD content was pricey too.
But early HD content wasn't proprietary. If you were nuts enough to buy a D-VHS machine, you could at least play whatever tapes you could find on any TV you wanted.
Essentially what Sony is saying is "If you want to watch 4K movies today, you have to by a Sony TV." Does Sony have a blatant internal conflict of interest here? Yep. They, as the largest current source of 4K content, are essentially extorting anyone who wants to get a 4K TV into buying theirs, because otherwise there's basically nothing to watch in 4K.
For the record, when CNET's David Katzmaier asked Sony's reps why the player is proprietary, they cited the issue of rights management and security. In other words, Sony claims to be worried about piracy. That may be the case, but it's also worried about profit.
Samsung is reacting, trying to do the same, but without owning a studio, it can't offer more than minimal 4K content so far.
The problem with proprietary
If this doesn't seem like a big deal, consider this: What would have happened if, in the early days of DVD, you could only buy discs that worked with your brand of television? How quickly would you have upgraded, knowing that to watch your two favorite movies you'd need to buy two different televisions, and two different DVD players?
Oh, and the TV companies did the exact same thing with early 3D Blu-ray discs, selling them in bundles with their own TVs. Avatar, for example, was initially only available on 3D Blu-ray to people who bought a Panasonic 3D TV (and the price of the disc skyrocketed on eBay as a result).
But at least you could play those discs on any 3D Blu-ray player. These proprietary 4K players are locked down completely.
The looming specter of doom
There's an even bigger problem, and it's political: Net neutrality. There's too much going on in Washington right now to say whether the sky is falling or not, but if you care at all about 4K, you ever want a 4K TV, or you think someday you might want to stream 4K to your house, you need to learn about Net neutrality.
4K takes up a LOT of bandwidth, even when using H.265/HEVC. How the pipes are managed to get that content to your home could determine the future of streaming 4K. Check out Why you should care about Net neutrality (FAQ), FCC opens hot-button Net neutrality proposal for public debate and Comcast vs. Netflix: Is this really about Net neutrality?, for more info.
But hey, at least the Netflix 4K streams aren't proprietary. They're available on numerous brands of 2014 4K TVs.
Sony and Samsung keeping 4K content propriety are like Butch and Sundance arguing about the rapids. It's the fall that's gonna kill ya. By trying to force people into only buying their brand for this new format, they're limiting the number of people willing to buy a 4K TV. Limiting the available content doesn't help the adoption of 4K TVs in general, at least in the short term before more 4K streaming sources, disc formats and channels become available.
There will always be early adopters, but in order for 4K to become the standard, it has to reach a critical mass. Otherwise it will end up like 3D: a passing affectation, and now largely unused checklist feature. If it wants 4K to succeed, the industry needs to expose more people to it, and the sooner the better. Unlocking 4K content will do just that.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an email! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.