This is a huge announcement, but my suspicion is that it will be lost on a lot of people, especially those who are Windows users. But here goes: Universal Studios has been added to the growing list of movie studios whose purchased movies will now be available on the fly from PCs, Macs, Apple TVs, iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches configured to use Apple’s iCloud service. This means that when you purchase a Universal movie from iTunes, it will be available to you going forward forever, and from any compatible device.

Still not getting it?

Apple iCloud does a lot of things, and it does almost all of them well. On the digital media content side, iCloud can make your purchased music collection available to you at any time for free, and if you pay $25 per year for iTunes Match, it can make your entire music collection—regardless of the source of that music—available to you at any time, again, from any compatible device.

But iCloud works the same way for TV shows and movies … assuming that the content providers support it. On the TV show side, it appears most do: In my own account, I see almost 300 TV show episodes spanning such shows as Archer, Band of Brothers, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, and Game of Thrones. On the movie end, only two studios were not offering iCloud compatibility: Fox and Universal. But with Universal now signing on, that means any Universal movies you’ve purchased are now available for download or streaming (while downloading) going forward. In my case, the recently-released “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy” turned up. Nice.

icloud-purchased
Semi-random collection of purchased movies, now available going forward

To date, I’ve tried not to purchase too many digital movies. (There are only 13 in iCloud, and 3 are from a 3-disc DVD set that offered Digital Copy versions of each via iTunes.) But with Apple now offering these movies for later viewing from compatible devices, often in stunning 1080p HD quality, it’s less of a concern. If Fox signs on, and you have to think they will, it becomes sort of a no brainer.

So what does this mean to Windows users?

On the Windows side of the fence, we have two major competitors to iTunes/iCloud that make any sense: Microsoft’s constantly-renamed Marketplace (Sometimes called Zune Marketplace, though Windows 8 divides it into Movies Marketplace and TV Marketplace, plus Music Marketplace) and Amazon.com, which offers a confusing array of video-related services.

To be fair, Microsoft’s Marketplace has offered this “stream at any time later” feature for years, though I suspect that even fewer people knew about this than know about iCloud’s content features today. And Marketplace also offers a stunning 1080p capability where the stream starts off in standard definition and then improves to 1080p (or whatever quality level is available) as the movie/TV show plays and the local content cache fills up. But it’s Microsoft. After several years of Zune failure, does anyone really trust Microsoft to deliver this service properly and keep it going?

I’m not sure I do. The Windows 8 digital media app previews are universally terrible, and are designed as front-ends for the Microsoft Marketplace first and foremost. This is interesting because so few people even know about the service(s) let alone use them. And there are concerns on the compatible device side. Yes, Windows-based PCs are compatible, as is the Zune PC software, Xbox 360, and Windows Phones, though the stream later feature is pretty much PC- and Xbox-only.

Looking at the dismal state of the Windows 8 digital media stuff, and the high quality of the Apple iCloud/iTunes stuff, it’s hard to feel good about what Microsoft is doing, or for its chances in the real world.  I’ve derided iTunes for Windows for being the crap that it is. But it’s about a thousands times better than the apps Microsoft is providing with Windows 8. Sorry. It’s just true.