Apple's Moving Pictures

A little more than week ago, as the deadline for my column in the next print issue of Macworld loomed, I decided to use a column topic that I’ve been considering for a few months now: what’s the deal with Apple’s failure to enter the portable and downloadable video market?

Suffice it to say that I wrote an entirely new column today. What a difference one set of Apple product announcements can make.

I will admit, I’m somewhat relieved that my labored retelling of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — featuring Ghosts of iPods Past, Present, and Yet To Come — won’t ever see print. (You, dear Macworld.com reader, can view the PDF of the Column That Never Was if you want to assess what I got wrong and what I got right.)

But I’ve got to say, I’m extremely happy that Apple is finally a player in the video market. And that the company’s first steps are tremendously encouraging.

In my now-ruined original column, I fantasized about iTunes 6, which would add a Videos item in the iPod source list — and that it would display a list of music videos, movies, iMovies, and TV shows. Turns out my dream was pretty close to reality. The stuff for sale via iTunes isn’t as wide-ranging as I had hoped, but these are early days. The fact is, there’s now nothing technically stopping Apple from selling feature-length films from its store tomorrow. Count on some enterprising movie studio to experiment with films on iTunes in the very near future.

Most encouraging for me is iTunes’ and Apple’s embrace of television. For a long time I’ve gotten the feeling that Steve Jobs isn’t a big fan of TV. But now Apple has recognized that television, perhaps even more than movies, is a medium that could potentially be transformed by digital downloads.

Five series from ABC and Disney are only a first step — indeed, an Apple executive told me that the company approached only ABC about this new service. But I’m pretty sure that iTunes executives have already got a bunch of voice-mail messages waiting for them from executives at other networks and TV studios. In fact, earlier this month the networks were talking about selling commercial-free replays of TV shows for $1, so I think we’ll see a whole lot more in this area soon.

Now all Apple needs to do is combine two of its most recently-added features: Video Podcasting and TV Series. Imagine paying a monthly subscription for a particular TV series—let’s say The Daily Show —and having it downloaded, commercial-free, to your Mac (and video iPod) the day after it airs.

Video on iPod

I realize that many people might be skeptical about the entire concept of watching video on an iPod. After all, that’s a tiny screen. But as I wrote in September, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my commute watching TV shows on my Treo cell phone. The video specs for the videos I’ve been watching are, in fact, identical to those of the video iPod — 30 frames per second at 320-by-240 pixels, roughly half the resolution of a standard TV picture.

This is not a format you’d necessarily want to watch a lush, beautifully-shot motion picture on. But for TV shows, music videos, silly romantic comedies, and the like? It’s a lot of fun. Watching video on the go won’t be for everyone, but people who have long commutes or spend a lot of time on airplanes will embrace the video iPod. Sony’s PlayStation Portable has already shown that a small, hand-held device can be popular as a video viewer. Now it’s the iPod’s turn.

A dream deferred

Proving that the imagination is still a remarkably powerful force, there are still numerous places where Apple’s new video announcements have left room for improvement. Half-TV-resolution videos are fine for an iPod, but it’s disappointing that people watching on high-resolution computer screens don’t have the option of viewing standard- or high-definition videos instead.

Purely because of politics, I’m not surprised at the lack of DVD integration in Apple’s new products. Yes, you can play a DVD back on a new iMac and control it via the new Front Row application, but there’s no way to burn the videos you’ve bought to DVD, nor is there any Apple-approved away of converting the DVDs you’ve purchased into movies that are playable on your iPod. (This is not to say that it can’t be done — just that Apple won’t help you do it and the act of converting those DVDs into other formats is, frustratingly, illegal.)

Video everywhere but here

Although Apple has finally embraced television programming, it’s a little frustrating to see that it hasn’t embraced the television set yet. Thanks to these latest announcements, you can now watch music videos, movie shorts, and TV shows on your Mac and on your iPod. And yes, you can connect your iPod to your TV set and play those videos back.

But there’s another shoe that needs to drop here, and it’s one that wirelessly connects the TV set to your Mac, giving you a Front Row-style interface as you sit on your couch. During my column-writing frenzy last week, I envisioned it as a small, white plastic box, only a little bit larger than an AirPort Express, and attached to a beautiful flat-panel TV set. This device would let me — via a snazzy Apple remote control — browse my iTunes music library, choose music, browse podcasts, build playlists, browse Internet radio stations, and even choose from a bunch of snazzy visualizers, and all the music would play through my home-theater audio system. Plus, it would let me browse my movies, TV shows, and iMovies, and play them back—in full, high-definition quality.

I’m not complaining here, because I think Apple’s going to release a product like this eventually. Whether it’s based on the Mac mini and Front Row, or it’s a slimmed-down, AirPort Express-like device, it’s a no-brainer. Apple’s got video in our computers and on our iPods. Now it’s time to get them to where we watch most of our videos: our TVs.

Good news, bad news

On a purely personal level I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed that I spent all that time lamenting Apple’s lack of a video presence the very week before Apple went into video whole hog. But you know what? Words are cheap. Apple using its technological prowess to transform how we watch video the same way they changed how we buy and listen to music? That’s priceless.

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