From Discs to Downloads: Apple Leads the Way

At Appleis "Showtime" press event on September 12, the biggest news was about a product that wonit be available until next year and which Apple barely mentions on its Web site. Before I get to that, however, I have a few semi-random observations about the rest of what Steve Jobs revealed at the press event.

  • Apple announced a revamped iPod line, including a completely redesigned iPod shuffle. The shuffle looks like a winner for those minimalists for whom small size and low price are primary concerns. Itis hard to imagine an encore here; the device certainly canit get much smaller. As it is now, the entire shuffle is barely bigger than the click wheel.

  • The new iPod nano is also a bit smaller than before...and colored cases are back. Still, I continue to be mystified by the popularity of this mid-sized iPod, especially the top-of-the line model. I can understand some people, especially joggers, preferring the smaller size of the nano to a full-size iPod. For these users, the least expensive 2GB nano would likely be adequate (after all, how many people will need more than 500 songs for a jog?). What remains a mystery is why anyone would prefer to spend $250 on the new 8GB nano, when for the exact same price you can get a full size iPod that comes with a 30GB drive and a larger display--plus the ability to play video. And it can still fit in your pocket.

  • The new full sized iPods are still called 5th generation iPods -- although with a "(Late 2006)" added to their technical moniker. This makes sense, as they are not that much different from the previous iPod models. Rumor sites are still predicting a 6th generation iPod, featuring a touchscreen that covers the entire front of the device. I am sure it will arrive someday, but, at this point, I would not hold my breath to see it at Macworld Expo this January. (It does make me wonder what Apple has up its sleeves for a major announcement at Macworld Expo. In the last few months it has unveiled Leopard, new iPods and a completed transition to Intel Macs. Whatis left? New iMacs? Heck, Iill just wait until the Expo to find out.)

  • The iTunes Store (you notice itis no longer called the iTunes Music Store?) now features movies for downloading. The only studio to sign up so far is Disney. Does this mean that other studios are either going to pass on this opportunity or go with another vendor such as I doubt it. The iTunes market share is too big to ignore. If the Disney movie downloads are even a moderate success (and I predict they will be), the other studios will be signing up soon enough.

    By the way, I downloaded a movie ("Enemy of the State") on the day the service was announced. It took almost 8 hours. Steve said at the press event that, with a broadband Internet connection as fast as mine, it should only take about 30 minutes. An Apple Knowledge Base article gives a broader range of 20 minutes to 3 hours. Regardless, my experience was not close to any Apple estimate. Maybe it was first day "jitters" -- the service may have been overwhelmed with people like me who wanted to test it out. Weill see.

  • The iTunes Store now also features downloadable games. They are designed just for video iPods and wonit play on your Mac.

  • Happily, the just-announced movies and games are compatible with the original 5th generation iPods, not just the newly announced ones. However, to get them to transfer to your older iPod, youill need to update your iPod software to version 1.2 (you can get the update from within iTunes 7).

  • Speaking of iTunes 7, its newly revamped interface is gorgeous -- as well as easier to navigate. Kudos to Apple on this. The new cover art views are especially great (although if you have a lot of music for which Apple cannot locate the needed cover art, youill see a lot of boring "blank" covers).

Getting back to movies...

You canit copy downloaded movies to a DVD in a format that will play on a typical DVD player. Not a surprise here. This has also been true for the TV shows already available on iTunes. Yes, you can transfer music downloads (as copy-protected files) to a CD. But it remains a no-go for movies to DVDs.

Conversely, there is still no legal way to transfer a movie from a DVD to your Mac, so that you can get it on an iPod for example.

Too it would be convenient to have these options. They way it is now, if you want a movie available both as a DVD and on your Mac, you need to pay for the same movie twice. Weive all been down this road before (such as having to get the DVD version of a movie you already own as a VHS tape), but I still hold on to some faint hope that the studios may relent on this some day (hopefully in my lifetime).

Until then, when I want to buy a new movie, I am going to have some intense internal debates. Do I want to pay as much as $14.99 to get the movie from iTunes or would I rather (often for just a couple of bucks more) get the DVD? The iTunes option allows me to play the movie on an iPod as well as in a "disc-less" form on a Mac (useful on plane rides where you donit want to drain your battery by the constant spinning of your DVD drive). The DVD option offers better resolution (although the improved 640 x 480 resolution of iTunes movies will be more than adequate for most users) and the ability to easily play it on a TV or any other medium that accepts DVD discs.

One partial solution here would be for Apple to do something it has so far resisted: offer a rental option for movies. I completely understand and support Appleis position to avoid rentals for music and TV shows. But the cost of one movie is much more than one song or one TV show. And people are much less likely to rewatch a movie than relisten to a song. So a rental option, with a $3.00 fee for example, might prove to be quite popular and profitable.

Finally, letis return to what I consider to be the biggest announcement at the press event: iTV. Essentially, it is a wireless device that will allow you to stream movies from your Mac to your television. Think of it as a combination of an enhanced version of Front Row software together with a hardware device that resembles a Mac mini that has expanded connectivity options but no hard drive. And all for just $299.

In an unusual move, Steve showed off a prototype of this product even though it wonit be available for sale until the first quarter of 2007. I can understand why. Most people still watch movies on their televisions, not on their computers. This is likely to remain true for quite some time. By offering a convenient way for movies downloaded from iTunes to play on a television, the entire concept suddenly becomes a lot more attractive! Assuming iTV even comes close to working as well as it did in the demo, I know I will be lining up to get one.

What does this all portend for the future? It means that we are at the threshold of a new era in how we get and view media content. I have heard predictions that Appleis venture into movies is the beginning of the end for the DVD. The demise of the CD has been predicted for a couple of years now. I am not ready to start tossing out my discs yet. But clearly the move is on to shift content delivery from discs to downloads. With products such as iTV and iTunes movies, Apple is breaking down some of the barriers to this transition and is well-positioned to continue leading the charge. For Apple, and especially for Mac users, the future looks brighter than ever.