Friday, October 14, 2005

More on the vidipod and Front Row

Following my initial enthusiasm for Apple’s entry into the video on demand market, I've been thinking some more about what Wednesday’s unveilings have to say about the company's media strategy roadmap. Second guessing Steve Jobs seems to have become an industry in itself, and is really quite good fun in its own right, so indulge me as I wildly speculate on what the future may bring. This seems, in fact, to be the ideal time to try and predict what's going to happen throughout the coming years, because once updated laptops and Powermacs are announced in the next few weeks, that’s probably going to be it on the hardware side until all the kinks of the Intel transition are hammered out - probably sometime in 2007.
 
What I think this means is that, over the next two years, the public can expect to see massive investment by Apple in their content delivery infrastructure and cross platform user interface. And frankly it’s overdue, because iTunes, once a kick-ass music organiser and player is not up to the burdens now being placed on it, and neither, I suspect, are Mac users.
 
I don't know about other Mac users because I've never actually met one in the flesh, but my Home directory has separate Music, Pictures and Movies folders. However, the way things are, Apple may as well replace them all with a single iPod folder and be done with them. If iTunes is going to copy your movies to a music folder, and demand to be used for photo synching then what’s the point of keeping individual folders around? Actually, what’s the point of iTunes anymore?

The iTunes interface is now an ungodly mess, and there is only one reason for it.

Windows.

There is no question that Apple owes much of its current success to its decision to port iTunes to Windows, but if development had continued on the Mac alone, most likely there would be a single Quicktime store for music and movies and a means to export purchases to separate music and video players. That would be the Apple way. Instead we’re made to suffer what is basically an inelegant hack job, a bloated iTunes, a music store selling movies, because Apple wants everything to work and look the same way on Macs and PCs, which means running everything in a single, portable, Carbon environment.
 
It makes no sense to use iTunes as a movie viewer, but if Apple want to sell movies to Windows users then that’s the way it has to be. Once all Apple software is running on Intel processors, porting between OSes ought to be a trivial task, but until that day iTunes remains a music jukebox with badly implemented movie pretensions. An example: field information is geared towards song labeling, there is no way within the app to tag a movie with Writer, Director, or Star info. Although I notice that Show, Season and Episode columns have been added to the library window, this data is not displayed in the movie’s info dialogue (and iTunes refers to movies, generically, as songs).
 
It's becoming harder and harder to mask this mess, and my take is that Apple's solution to the problem is Front Row. I expect this to eventually replace iTunes and Quicktime Player and become the front end for separate databases containing music and movie files. Given Apple's current trend of phasing out products just as they are becoming popular, I'd look for it to become the next Dashboard as well - use it to call up weather info, RSS feeds, and cricket scores; why, it's the new Ceefax! Don’t expect it to display TV schedules, though, because if Apple get their way, in ten or so years there won't be any TV - we're seeing Apple’s baby-steps towards actually delivering a high-def, on demand, ip delivered entertainment infrastructure.
 
I'm no fan of DRM, but since I’ve oftentimes admitted to downloading every minute of TV I watch using Bittorrent, that's probably not surprising. For now, it’s the price we pay to legitimise the idea and fund the reality of this alternative distribution system. We must treat the movie and music industries with the respect, courtesy and gentleness one would extend to an elderly relative, no matter how much they may rage against the dying of the light. Let them demand DRM and variable pricing, subscriptions and limits on fair use, subpoenas and political favours. They see the writing on the wall. They no longer have any control over how we choose to consume our entertainment. They hate the idea we should only have to buy something once. Right now, they have to sell us as much as they can, as often as they can, as quickly as they can, because the day will come when it becomes possible for independent artists to survive solely on the revenue generated by iTunes (or whatever it becomes), and they won’t be needed.
 
Idealistic, and possibly naive, I know. And the fact remains that even if that is the future, we need content now. Thankfully Apple (and others) have found ways to work with existing copyright holders to provide it, and have managed to keep pricing reasonable in the face of undisguised greed, thereby easing punters away from the evils of P2P. Now is definitely the time to get the movie studios on board. Apparently, of all the traffic on P2P networks, 61% is video. Only 11% is audio. Other studies reverse these figures. Nobody knows anything, damn it. Regardless of the actual figures, no-one disputes that music is down, videos are up. If this were only due to ever increasing home bandwidth, we wouldn’t be seeing a decline in music downloads. No, the decrease is the effect of legal download services offering good product at fair(ish) prices.
 
One of the ways in which Apple will get the studios to allow the hosting of their material will be by limiting its portability, or scaleabilty, if you prefer*. Yes, an iPod can be carried anywhere, but the video file itself isn’t much good displayed by any other method, which is what I am getting at. For now, we are being offered video in a maximum resolution of 480x480. This looks like butter on a 2.5 inch screen, just about tolerable on an SD TV and shite on a computer monitor and HDTV. These are early days though, and I expect the offerings to improve. You may say to me that Apple have never offered songs in anything other than 128kbps, so why should they increase their video resolution? I say to you that 128kbps is just as listenable through a home speaker system as it is through your iPod’s headphones, whereas the quality gap between your iPod’s screen and HDTV is huge. Plus, Apple already offer HD content and I have no doubt that, eventually, they will offer shows at multiple resolutions and prices: say $1.00 an episode for the low res version, with high def versions available to those who subscribe to a season for $30-40.
 
This is how content creation will be bankrolled in the future. Scrape up the funds to create a pilot, stick it on iWhatever, have it played in Front Row. If a million people pay for it or, even better, subscribe upfront to further episodes you can make some good TV. In fact, we’ll even need a new name for it. The reason there is no TV tuner in the iMac is because Apple don’t want to turn your computer into a TV, they want to use their delivery system to supplant television entirely, and that’s why they will take control of our living space, and Microsoft’s Media Centre was doomed to fail.

Category: Computing and Web


*and, look, all of you I’ve seen getting in a twist because someone’s claimed you can’t burn your movies to optical discs (not true, anyway) - the price per GB ratio between hard drives and DVD+/-R is pretty even. And believe me, you will much prefer to keep 450GB of video on one ittle-bitty hard drive than on 100 DVDs. Trust me on this.

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