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Last January Miramax Films, the movie distributor that brought us such modern classics as Shakespeare in Love and Good Will Hunting, became the first bona fide Hollywood player to make the leap into the world of broadband entertainment when it made its 1999 movie Guinevere available as a copy-protected download over the Internet. Web surfers were invited to pay $3.49 on their credit cards for the privilege of skipping the trip to the video store.

Fuzzy bootleg copies of other movies, such as The Matrix and Blade Runner, abound on the Web, along with infinite numbers of amateur videos. But Guinevere is the first Hollywood movie to be offered online in a legal, non-pirated way. It’s an Internet milestone-even if Miramax has chosen one of its less successful films with which to make history. So I decided to give this brave new world of broadband entertainment a try.

A day and a half later I was still trying. Much of that time was taken up borrowing a Windows-run computer, since Miramax’s Web distribution partner SightSound Technologies has yet to support Macintosh; then I discovered I needed two plug-ins before the movie would download itself onto my computer. Using my digital subscriber line (DSL) service, the download itself took one hour and 14 minutes; but add time for locating the required plug-ins, downloading and installing the software, rebooting when asked, and then going back online after the movie finally downloaded to give my credit-card information and pay, and the process easily took two hours. That’s 15 minutes longer than the movie. In two hours I would have been watching not the titles but the credits, if only I’d gone the low-tech route and rented from the local video store.

What did I get for the trouble? A grainy film on a computer monitor. The version of Guinevere available over the Internet is only about one-tenth the file size of the version available on DVD; as a result, the picture quality is much lower. There is also the problem of milieu. Watching a film-especially one that advertises itself as “a May-September romance with an edge”-while leaning forward staring at a computer isn’t exactly a bring-out-the-popcorn kind of experience. Fifteen minutes into the film I gave up and took my dog for a walk.

One of the most pervasive visions of the broadband future is “video on demand,” the ability to order up movies and other programming and have them appear promptly on your screen, ready for viewing. Miramax is forging ahead, planning to offer a dozen movie titles online for download by the end of this year. Other Hollywood studios are following suit, citing the lucrative opportunities created by the fact that, for the first time, millions of consumers are gaining broadband access to the Internet.

But in the hour or so it took to download Guinevere, I had plenty of time to wonder, Is this it? Is this the best that the creative minds of Hollywood can come up with for the broadband Web?

Certainly, broadband Internet connections can transmit large amounts of data at speeds inconceivable only a few years ago. These connections, using either a digital subscriber line service running over the pair of copper wires from the telephone company or a cable-modem service delivered over cable-TV wires, are now in over five million U.S. households. They greatly outperform conventional dial-up modems, increasing the amount of data per second that consumers can reliably receive over a network and into their PCs by up to 50 times.

Still, it isn’t nearly enough. At least not for some of the grander visions offered by Holly-wood studios and other entertainment companies looking to exploit the bandwidth explosion. Not only will the Internet of the foreseeable future give you a fuzzy version of Guinevere after nearly a two-hour wait, but many other promised broadband applications-choose-your-own-replay sports sites, say, or interactive 3-D video games-are also proving to be far more technologically difficult than many had expected.

This doesn’t necessarily spell doom for broadband entertainment. But it does mean the future will look quite different from what some Internet pundits predicted even a year ago. Forget about downloading Hollywood movies or real-time video of the soccer championship being played in Brazil. What will work are Internet sites that take into account the limitations of even a broadband Web and nevertheless manage to offer customers something new.

“What consumers want from broadband is still something of a question mark,” says Ford Cavallari, an executive with Adventis, a Boston-based management consulting firm. “But it’s going to have nothing to do with two-hour movies, no matter what kind of fire-power you see coming out of Los Angeles.”


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