Moving pictures

About a week before Apple announced its fifth-generation, wide but thin, video-playin’ iPod, I wrote my column for this very issue of Macworld. In that column, I complained about Apple’s failure to enter the market for portable and downloadable video. What a difference one set of Apple product announcements can make.

I’ll admit, I’m somewhat relieved that this column, a, shall we say, creative retelling of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—featuring Ghosts of iPods Past, Present, and Future—will never see the light of day. But what makes me happier is that Apple is finally a player in the video market, and that its first steps are so encouraging.

iTunes does TV

In that column, I fantasized that iTunes 6 would add a Videos item to the Source list; this item would display a list of music videos, movies, and TV shows. As it turns out, my fantasy was pretty close to reality.

True, iTunes’ video content—so far, music videos and five TVseries—isn’t as wide-ranging as I’d hoped. But there’s no technical reason that Apple couldn’t start 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.

I actually find it encouraging to see Apple turn to television first. For a long time, I’ve had the feeling that Steve Jobs doesn’t really like TV. But Apple has now recognized that television—even more than movies—is the medium that can be transformed by digital downloads. Like I said, those five series are only a first step. Indeed, ABC was the only network Apple approached about this new service. I’m betting that Apple executives are already fielding requests from other networks and TV studios, and that we’ll be seeing their wares for sale at the iTunes Music Store before too long.

Now all Apple needs to do to make my fantasy come true is to combine two of its recent features: Podcasting and downloadable TV shows. Imagine paying a monthly subscription for The Daily Show and having it downloaded, without commercials, to your Mac (and video iPod) the day after it airs.

Video on the iPod

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

You’re not going to watch a beautifully shot motion picture on one of these new iPods. But for TV shows, music videos, and the like, the small screen works just fine. Watching video on-the-go won’t be for everyone, but anyone who has a long commute or spends a lot of time on airplanes will embrace it.

A dream deferred

Apple’s video announcements leave plenty of room for improvement. Half-TV-resolution videos are fine for an iPod, but not for high-resolution computer screens.

Thanks to the politics of the media business, I’m not surprised that Apple didn’t integrate DVD into its 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 you can play on your iPod. (This is not to say that it can’t be done. But Apple won’t help you do it—the act of converting those DVDs into other formats is still, frustratingly, illegal.)

Video everywhere but here

There’s another shoe that needs to drop here, and it’s the one that wirelessly connects the TV set to your Mac, giving you a Front Row-style interface as you sit on your couch.

In my Apple-video fever dream, I saw it as a small plastic box, only a little larger than an AirPort Express, attached to a beautiful flat-panel TV set. This device would let me—via a snazzy Apple remote control—browse my iTunes music, movies, TV shows, and iMovies, and play them at full high-definition quality.

I’m not complaining. I think Apple will release a product like this eventually—whether it’s based on the Mac mini and Front Row or is a slim AirPort Express-like device. With its latest hardware, Apple has put video in our computers and on our iPods. Now it must close the loop and let us connect those sources to the machines we use to watch our videos: our TV sets.

So—new iMacs, new iPods, and a new iTunes. What do you think? Let me know in our forums, or send me an e-mail.

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