Vudu is adding some free video content to its set-top box. Streaming video from providers such as YouTube, MSNBC, CNN, MTV, PBS, and National Geographic will be available, as will access to Flickr and Picasa photos and a handful of casual video games. The new content will be available via a free firmware update that's scheduled to hit all Vudu boxes over the next 24 hours.
The new services will be available as part of what Vudu is calling the Rich Internet Application platform, or RIA. (It'll be available on a tab called "Vudu Labs" on the set-top box's main home screen.) Vudu hasn't signed deals with any of the above-mentioned content providers; instead, the RIA is using freely available Web content and feeds. Vudu is planning to open up its RIA platform to third-party developers in the first half of 2009. The company is also noting that the platform is optimized for fairly low system requirements ("a 300 MHz embedded processor with 128MB of RAM"), suggesting that the Vudu Rich Internet Application platform could be ported to other set-tops as well.
Vudu gave CNET a sneak peek of the RIA features a few days early. We think it shows promise, but--as always--content is king, and there's not yet a wealth of must-see TV there. While Vudu says that the "On-Demand TV" section comprises more than 120 "channels," much of it is just clips or short-form content (often video podcasts, such as Rocketboom), with very little long-form full-episode content available. For instance: the "movies" section listed in the screenshot above had no actual movies; instead, it was comprised of featurettes and minisodes highlighting upcoming movies. A Vudu representative said that most network TV shows--full TV episodes available from Hulu, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CNET owner CBS--are currently housed in proprietary players that require a full Web browser or some sort of contractual arrangement, taking them off the table, at least for now.
On the other hand, navigation was generally smooth, and streaming quality was mostly solid (though, aside from an occasional high-res video, the visual presentation of most clips were as blocky as you'd expect from blowing up a Flash video on a big-screen TV). At the very least, Vudu now has the architecture in place to begin offering a more complete digital viewing experience of free content beyond its core pay-per-view offerings. That gives it a worthwhile bullet point against competitors such as Apple TV (which also has YouTube) and the Xbox 360 (Netflix). And as YouTube moves from short viral pet videos to full-episode TV shows, that feature could well become more worthwhile as well.
If the new Vudu features sound compelling--or potentially compelling, at least--remember that Best Buy's $200 movie credit--bringing the price of the $300 Vudu BX100 to an effective price of just $100--expires on December 31.
Read the CNET review of the Vudu BX100.