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Day of the Video: Apple

Overall, I'm disappointed, maybe because I expected a major new device like a Video iPod or video-streaming airport, though the latter is very difficult to get right. Pretty much every site I read overpredicted for this event, which perhaps relates to the fact that it has been a long time since Apple has pulled a 'wow.'

Instead of going for one big wow, today's announcement was mostly a parade of updates. For something approximately a wow, they had to do continue their more recent trend of pre-announcing (is this Apple we're talking about?). The 640x480 video upgrade was major to me as it took the video from being iPod-only to something I might watch on a big screen, and the revamped iTunes 7.0 is nice but overdue (did anyone think that the video browser was laid out well?). The inclusion of Disney movies in the movie store is minor given Amazon's Unbox, which offers many more movies with just as many silly encumberances (I'll use neither), and the updates to the iPods were mostly minor (brighter screens, bigger storage, better battery life, new cases) with the exception of the new Shuffle -- it got a lot more attractive. The biggest item, the iTV, is months out and isn't even capable of recording TV -- it's just another box through which you can buy more stuff from Apple. It's one thing when an Apple device induces you to buy more stuff from Apple, but this really just looks like a dedicated box to fill Steve Jobs with money.

  • iTunes 7.0: The UI got a minor major revamp, which was necessary: the left pane was getting very overloaded with each successive Apple media event. There is a new album/DVD cover art flipper that looks similar to the freeware app CoverFlow (update: CoverFlow licensed their tech to Apple), which necessitated Apple finally offering free cover art (Musicmatch did this for me 6 years ago!), and there are some other needed tweaks like making the controls for iPod sync a first-class citizen.

  • iTV: Perhaps the biggest announcement was the pre-announcment of a set-top box, the iTV (side note: what is it with Apple and pre-announcements nowadays?). As far as I can tell, it's a Mac mini that just runs iTunes/Front Row. There are no input jacks for it to record TV, so most of the video will have to be purchased from Apple unless you really, really like vodcasts. I'm patient enough to wait for any show to hit DVD, so I've only purchased a TV show once when my TiVo couldn't record two programs that were on at the same time. This might be attractive for the person who likes TV but doesn't want cable.

  • aluminum Nanos: what do you do when everyone complains about scratches on their black Nanos? Make it out of metal and give people colors. As far as I can tell, that's the only big change to the line; no mention of video support though the screen and battery life have been improved.

  • Shuffle 2.0: Jobs now claims it is the World's Smallest MP3 player. I actually think is it a tad bit larger than the quarter-sized ones I've seen, but it doesn't matter too much -- it's tiny. At this form-factor, the absense of a screen finally makes more sense to me.

  • 640x480 video: at long last, the video on the iTunes store is now 640x480. I've previously whined about how 320x240 is far too small to pay money for -- it's only good enough for the iPod and looks like crap on TV -- so I'm very happy to see a more respectable encoding used.

  • Movie store: leaked awhile ago, there are now 75 Disney-related films on iTunes for purchase. yawn. I'm not a person who cares about this sort of stuff. I'd rather buy CDs because I can play them on non-Apple devices without having to reburn a playlist, and I'd rather buy a DVD because even if that is a more locked format than a CD, I actually own the DVD and I'm free from Apple deciding what devices I get to play my movies on.

  • updated iPods: gapless playback is nice -- though I had a plugin for Winamp that did this 7 years ago -- but I could care less about playing video games or inputting search text on a scrollwheel.

Comments (7)

The iTV makes sense to me as the missing piece in Apple's approach to media. Apple's world is one in which you buy everything a la cart. You don't listen to the radio, you just buy the hits you want from them and make your own playlist. You don't pay for cable, you get season passes from them for just the shows you like. The problem with this before was that all the stuff was stuck on your computer, so this lets it move out to your TV where you can actually enjoy it.

$300 is a bit much, though, unless you consider it a replacement for your DVD player and your TiVo box (which, in Apple's world, it is). I think the problem here is that, like with the PS3, the components cost more than people are willing to pay for the product.

kwc:

The iTV makes perfect sense in a 100% Apple world, but it is the first product from Apple in my mind that doesn't make a bit of sense in a <100% Apple world. Sure you can buy video and music from Apple for your iPod, but your iPod is a useful device without the music store. You can hook up your Mac mini to your TV, but it is a nice cheap computer regardless. Part of the brilliance of Apple's past strategy has been making products that blend into a <100% Apple world that then entice you to increase that percentage.

The iTV, as I currently read it, cannot live outside the Apple economic system. Forget about your DVDs, forget about your cable subscription, forget about your live sports programs, forget about your local news: everything on that box must come from iTunes. For $299 you effectively start with an empty library that you have to purchase entirely through Apple. That's just not something I could ever be comfortable with, especially since you don't buy music and videos from Apple, you license them.

A set-top box is an obvious component that Apple needed to complete the picture. I've personally wished for an official Mac mini PVR. A device of that sort would do a good job of blending with the current state of your media (cable and DVD). Unless Apple suddenly announces they are going to make it easy to rip DVDs or add a cable input jack, this seems to be an incredibly niche product, bypassing the opportunity for mass appeal. At least make it an Airport so that you get some extra utility out of it.

I agree. In theory I do like the idea of having all my DVDs ripped to my hard drive (and infinite HD space to store them all), but really there's little chance I'd switch to this from having a box hooked up to my cable.

The funny thing about it all is that the market to whom the iTunes TV/movie stuff caters most are casual viewers, not hardcore ones. iTunes is a great option if you only watch 4 TV shows, but it's rare that you have someone who only watches 4 shows but is enough of a techie to understand how to download TV and who would play it on a $300 box.

kwc:

Indeed, your comment about the market for this is on point: who would actually buy this? Either it's:

a) someone who has enough money to buy duplicate video media; i.e. the same people who bought UMD movies for the PSP.

b) The 4 TV show demographic you cite. Even though I have friends that fit this, they seem the minority. Not only is this demographic small, it's not very valuable -- it's people who, by definition, don't watch much.

c) someone who really just wants anything with an Apple logo on it, in which case it doesn't matter what Apple sells as long as its white/silver/black with rounded edges.

d) people who really want to watch their Apple media on a TV and don't want to wire their computer directly. I almost fit in this crowd: an Airport Express-like device and pricepoint would have appealed to me at some point in the future.

There are probably more, but these seem like the main breakdowns to me and none seem particularly large from my biased point of view.

This seems like a first generation device that will take a future iteration to become more compelling. Perhaps for now they get the very early adopters to make a bit of dough and in the future they come out with something that has more universal appeal.

M:

What iTV amounts to is basically FrontRow for your TV -- an easy to use remote-controlled interface for accessing the iTunes library. kwc's breakdown of the audience for the device is pretty spot on.

While people with HDTVs have bought upconverting DVD players, many of them still have not bought into the next gen media content (Blu Ray or HD-DVD, whichever wins the format war). iTunes is integral to the iTV device -- and lucky thing too, since iTunes, due to its PC-driven updates is essentially futureproofed technology. If iTunes gets upgraded, it doesn't matter, your iTV will still be compatible with it -- and that's the point that Apple needs to be driving home -- with an Apple-driven media library they won't need to rebuy their movies when the media changes again -- their purchases on the iTunes stores will upgrade.

For instance -- I have a huge DVD library. In transitioning to the next-gen HD media type, I won't be re-purchasing the entire library again -- but if Apple were to offer to automatically update my movies if a new resolution became available, then I might just be tempted to forget about owning media again.

Of course, media companies don't want this to happen -- Disney originally wanted DVDs to fail because their video tapes would wear out and degrade such that parents were forced to buy new ones. What Disney forgot was that DVDs are even more fragile than video tapes. (And they made a hell of a lot of money when people transitioned to rebuying their video library on DVD).

At 640x480, the new iTunes video quality is close to DVD resolution 720x576(PAL), or 720x480(NTSC), but still far from HDTV (1280x720 or 1920x1080), which makes me wonder why someone with an HDTV would use this device -- the movies will look worse than a DVD (which already look pretty bad on a HDTV)

There's also no reason why you couldn't rip your DVDs just like you do with your CDs, aside from storage space. I've ripped a few movies with Handbrake for trips, and they play fine in iTunes. Assuming you can get software that puts the files into a format with resolutions and audio fidelity you're comfortable with, you can just leave the DVDs on the shelf and only pull them out to watch the special features. The rise of MP3 was a great step toward future-proofing music -- if a new format comes along, we can just convert the files or re-rip the CDs. There's nothing that needs to mean that the same can't be true for DVDs, and there's nothing that says that you have to buy everything from Apple to watch it in iTunes.

Still, live sports are going to prevent iTV from ever being a total solution.

kwc:

When looking at iTV, there is what you could do with it, and there is what it supports you doing. You can rip DVDs and import them into iTunes, but its not something that iTunes supports, so it becomes a chore to do. Thus, iTV without DVD ripping or PVR integration is not an interesting product for my needs. I could rip DVDs using other software; I could also transcode my shows using TiVoToGo into it. But those are media babysitting chores and, for me, what I like about the original iPod platform is that it eliminated those types of chores; it's also what I like about most of the TiVo platform. The iTV could also eliminate media chores, but that only seems to be the case if you are willing to live 100% Apple.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on September 12, 2006 10:58 AM.

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