Watching films on Ubuntu (in England)

So there I was last week at my parents’ house, and my dad said: I am thinking of getting Netflix.

Oh?”, says I. “What brought this on?”

Questions like that end up turning into long discussions, and this was no exception. Those of you with the attention span of a four-year-old will find a summary at the bottom of the post.

He explained (in response to my question) that he likes the idea of watching films and it’s probably easier and probably cheaper and probably less hassle to do that in your own living room rather than the cinema, especially since the nearest cinema to him is probably 15 miles away. I pointed out that the available films will lag behind the cinema releases (so if you see an ad for, say, Star Trek Into Darkness1 on the side of a bus, you can’t watch it in your living room now) but that they lag behind a consistent amount (so all the films that hit the cinema 12 months ago2 arrive online at now, roughly, so all the films which were contemporarily released with one another are still contemporary with one another), and that there are multiple different providers of this sort of thing (Netflix, Lovefilm, Now TV). And I pointed out3 that this would be a bit of a problem technically, because the computer plugged into the big TV in the living room runs Ubuntu, and you can’t watch commercial streaming video on Ubuntu4 because it all requires MS PlayReady DRM5 and there’s no Ubuntu implementation of that, and so this meant that we’d need to install Windows on that TV computer instead.6

so, like, wassitallabout?

How does it work?”, says my dad. “Well,” said I, settling into the chair and adopting a wise look, “you pay a monthly subscription, and then pick any film you want and watch it whenever you want for free, beyond the subscription. I think if you watch the very latest films then they might charge an extra cost because it’s a really recent film, but you’re already waiting 12 months before it hits Netflix at all; you might as well just set your clock to 18 months behind and watch a film once it hits non-pay-per-view.” A nod from Dad. “Oh, and I think occasionally there might be a film that Netflix doesn’t have: sometimes there are little wars between them and, say, Amazon or Lovefilm7 or Hulu or whatever, and a film is a ‘Netflix exclusive’ or something.”8

We should check that,” says my dad, a man for whom “films I want to watch” has hitherto been Zulu and The Great Escape, but he’s right9. Now we pause here for twenty minutes while, with increasing disbelief and shrillness, I discover that Netflix don’t provide a browseable list of their films. They don’t. That’s insane. Also: you know how shops that don’t display their prices are doing so because it’s all stupidly expensive? Anyone who doesn’t display a list of their products is doing so because that list is a lot shorter and less comprehensive than you think it will be. So we poke around some more (I was honestly, properly shocked by the absence of a list) and find a website that searches Netflix and gives you a link. Commence another twenty minute block of disbelief during which my dad names film after film after film he wants to watch, or wouldn’t mind watching, or has always meant to watch… and we find, I think, three. These weren’t all new films, weren’t all obscure films, weren’t all old films: there was a good mix. And hardly any of them were there.

and the rat was nowhere at all

Further research establishes that the rivals — Lovefilm, Now TV, Blinkbox — are the same. I was under the impression that every one of these online movie places had basically every film you’ve ever heard of, and they compete on pricing, or access to the very latest films. It is not like that.10 Instead, Netflix and Lovefilm and Now TV have basically no films for streaming and then every now and again they might have one. That is: I thought that the model was “think on the bus of a film you fancy watching, then go home and find it on Netflix and watch it”, and the model is totally not that. Instead, the model is “decide you want to watch a film, and set aside two hours for film-watchy time, and then go to Netflix and choose a film from their list of films”. Or, in practice, from the subset of their list of films that you actually want to watch. That’s not necessarily a bad model — I’m sure new films come into Netflix’s list faster than you can watch them, and you could probably get quite a long way by just looking at their list and finding all the stuff on it that you like the look of — but I totally misunderstood (and so did Dad). I thought that Netflix were like Spotify but for films, and they really ain’t.11

father, I shall bring you only the finest blank tv screens

At this point he said, well, that’s crap then. I suppose I ought to go to the cinema.

I said: well, if you have to do the just-choose-off-the-list thing anyway, then why not just use a service who don’t charge a monthly subscription? What I mean is: do it all pay-per-view. So then you’re not paying when you’re not using it, and on any given day you can just do a search and see if there’s anything you fancy watching (and paying for), and if there isn’t, get in the car and go to the cinema instead. Best of both worlds. I’m sure that if you watched ten films a week that Netflix would be cheaper, but I don’t think that you’re gonna do that, daddy dearest.

OK, says daddy dearest. So, we do that, and put Windows on the computer, right?

Yep, I said. None of this stuff works on Ubuntu. Amazon Instant Video works fine, and does exactly what you want, but (check briefly on internet to confirm; briefly bitch on reddit about this; go back to dad) it’s US only. Soz.

the sacred art of stealing

We then have a little discussion about BitTorrent and theft of movies, during which I basically say: it is not the solution for you. First, it is really awkward and annoying. Popup ads, hundreds of different websites, being able to tell the difference between a “download the torrent” link which is real and one which is put there by an advert. Torrent sites are blocked by ISPs in the UK. Yes, gentle reader, stop sniggering at how this blocking approach is useless. Tt’s not meant to stop you, you filthy techie pirate: it’s meant to be a speed bump which makes it difficult for the unwashed masses to do this, to keep people like my dad out of the torrent gutter and in paid-for shiny Netflix territory… and it works.

I specifically recommended to dad that he not think about dealing with this stuff through theft, because theft is hard. Try it, next time you steal a movie: look at what you’re doing with the eyes of an inexperienced person. A person who doesn’t have Adblock Plus, who isn’t able to read through a list of search results and identify which ones “look legit” and which look like spam, who isn’t able to tell which links on a site are real and which download an exe. Theft is hard, and frankly it’s fairly close to not being worth the pain. It’s fairly close to it being easier to just pay the money. And that’s all the movie people want. They don’t want to make it impossible, they don’t want to studiously ignore that DRM doesn’t work, that blocking doesn’t work, that they can’t shut down every Pirate Bay proxy… all they have to do is make most people think “blimey, it’d be easier to pay the money than do this”. To me it feels like that’s now fairly close to being the case unless you’re a super techie (like most of the people reading this).

Also, y’know, stealing.

Also also: mkv. avi. srt. Do you really want to care about this stuff? Learn what a “BRRIP” is? Learn whether the thing you’ve got has Italian audio rather than English? Is "Incepcja - Inception DVDRip.XviD AC3 - ENG / Lektor PL" OK to download?12 Srsly, hassle. Avoid.

say that my glory was I had such friends

While explaining BitTorrent and why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, a couple of very helpful people saw and commented on my Reddit post complaining about this stuff. Google Play, they said… that’s in the UK. Single-purchase pay-per-view videos, no subscription required. Dad’s got an Android phone so he’s already got a Play account… and Play Video works in Ubuntu?


It does, it turns out.

Google Play Video in the Dash

Google Play Video in the Dash: preview

I was quite surprised by this.

he saved every one of us

You have to install hal to make Google Play work in Ubuntu13: to do this, search for hal in Ubuntu Software Centre and then install it (“Hardware Abstraction Layer”)14. This is the same thing that Amazon Instant Video in the US needs. It’s using Adobe’s Flash DRM stuff. This is good for us, we happy few, we Ubuntu users, because we have Flash. We do not have the PlayReady DRM which is in Silverlight15, and which the movie studios are pressuring online video people to switch to — that’s why Netflix doesn’t work in Ubuntu, that’s why Lovefilm no longer works, why Now TV doesn’t work. Google Play, on the other hand, works fine. Dad likes the pay-just-when-you-watch-a-film model, and it works on his existing computer with his existing accounts; he didn’t even have to sign up for anything. Just click and he’s bought a film and can watch it. Right there in the web browser. No app required at all.

It was literally that simple.

People on other platforms, who are not only used to the idea that it’s that simple, but have hardly any concept that it might not be simple, are laughing themselves sick right now at me being so childishly, pathetically pleased by this. I personally am thinking: good work, Google Play. You made that easy.

The film that Dad chose to watch… was Twilight. Twilight. You’re not my real dad, dad.

dispatch war rocket Ajax to bring back his body

This is worrying. (Not the Twilight thing.) Flash still exists on Ubuntu, but Adobe have stopped making it. The DRM parts of it are already dependent on hal, which is basically deprecated: Adobe built the Flash DRM stuff into Flash and on Linux when hal was the thing, and since then hal has stopped being the thing, but Adobe didn’t update Flash to work with the replacement… and right at the moment it doesn’t look like they will at all, because they’ve stopped doing Flash for Linux. This means that at some point it will stop working. At the moment it is possible to legitimately, legally, happily, easily watch a Hollywood film on a stock, standard Ubuntu machine. Google Play can do it in at least the US and the UK; Amazon Instant Video can do it in the US. If Flash stops working, that goes away.

And HTML5 will not save us. It will not. They’re talking about putting DRM into HTML5 video right now, but either they won’t do it (and then there won’t be any commercial videos in HTML5, just like there aren’t now) or they will do it and they’ll likely pick a DRM scheme which is not implemented on Ubuntu and won’t be (highly likely to be something like PlayReady, because the whole industry is already familiar with it). A move away from Flash and towards anything else makes life measurably worse for Ubuntu users, because we have Flash, and don’t have anything else.

fight the work per unit time

But you’re missing the point, man! We must fight DRM! It doesn’t work and it’s evil and useless!

I agree with all that. But that’s a long-term fight. And no-one has yet convinced me that there is a way to do it without selling the whole world on the idea that they should just Stop Watching Movies until the DRM goes away. And we, the DRM-haters, have had little to no success convincing people to make that sacrifice.

The music industry is not a good guide here. What happened in music was that all the players fought one another with different DRM schemes, no cooperation, to try and beat out their rivals. And while they were doing that, Apple came along and built something which was slick and easy to use and had Apple-specific DRM in it and dominated the market. Then the music industry said: it is our music, you have to play by our rules… and Apple said: no we don’t. We really don’t. What are you going to do, music people? Go and sell WMAs? Not likely. Everyone’s got an iPod now. And Apple were right… and because everyone wanted to sell music to iPod owners and didn’t want to do it through Apple’s sales channel, they had to go DRM-free. Because that’s all that iPods would play. You could see this as a great victory for consumer power, if you squint a bit.

The movie people, though (and this is an important point) are not stupid. They have seen what happened to the music industry, have seen that it ended up with all viable saleable music being DRM-free, and have said: that’s not gonna happen to us. They are not going to fight and bicker amongst themselves while Apple builds a royal road to all the money. They are not going to knife one another. They’re going to get together, swallow their pride a bit, and cooperate because they recognise that one DRM system that everyone compromises a bit on is better than a million and the eventual arrival of DRM-free videos. And so they did cooperate: that’s what Ultraviolet is. And it does not matter that Ultraviolet hasn’t taken off yet: it does not matter that it is not a viable competitor to Netflix. The point is that it exists. The movie people will not be forced into offering DRM-free movies because they didn’t cooperate until it was too late. They have seen the mistakes the music industry made, and won’t get caught the same way.

Let’s talk about how, in the long term, the studios can be convinced to not use DRM: that’s a good conversation to have. But it’s hard to see how to do that now without telling my dad that he can’t watch Twilight on Ubuntu even if he wants to.


One of the things about this whole topic of movies and DRM and Ubuntu and stuff is that every sentence comes larded with a million caveats, oh-but-what-abouts, roads-not-taken, sidebars, and other ancilliary things. If you manage to find something where I said “and therefore X” and didn’t mention that Y and Z also exist as possibilities, do not assume that it is because I do not know about Y and Z. But tell me about them!

tl; dr

Summary: Google Play video works on stock Ubuntu, in your browser, and exists here in England. It is, as far as I am aware, the only legitimate, unhacky16 way to watch a streamed Hollywood film on a standard Ubuntu laptop in England. I like it. So does my dad.

Google Play Video

Watching Looper on Ubuntu

  1. not Star Trek: Into Darkness
  2. or 18 months ago, or whatever the time lag actually is
  3. a touch shamefacedly
  4. he wants instant gratification: being able to go from “I want to watch a film” to “I am watching a film” in seconds. This means that a DVD rental service is no good for his use case
  5. yes, Silverlight, but Silverlight itself is not the problem
  6. yes, I know about the Netflix-under-Wine stuff in Ubuntu. Read on
  7. yes I know Amazon own Lovefilm
  8. pause for brief explanation of how Netflix are remaking House of Cards in America
  9. and this is a massively unfair characterisation
  10. Maybe it is like that in America. It isn’t, here.
  11. this is not necessarily a complaint. I understand that Netflix are not Spotify for films, and it is not Netflix’s fault that they are not Spotify for films. You think the music industry is full of back-alley cheating and under-the-table secret deals? Ha! You should see the movie people.
  12. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure myself. Looks like it’s got English audio and Polish subtitles? Don’t know.
  13. if you don’t install hal, Flash obviously still works, but the movie just won’t play
  14. or sudo apt-get install hal from a terminal
  15. we could have. Microsoft have not “refused” to put PlayReady on Ubuntu. They just haven’t done it, and why should they? what’s their motivation? I wouldn’t do it if I were them, right now
  16. installing a custom Wine and a PPA is hacky; using a US-based proxy is hacky. If you think it isn’t, that’s fine; continue to think so, and we’ll agree to differ.
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