Video iPod: Wrong Time, Wrong Place

The rumors on the Net about a video iPod were so widespread that when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod Photo, he had to introduce it in the context of what it wasn’t — namely, a video player. Jobs made lots of excuses about why Apple hadn’t done a video player, saying that video players were too big and the screens weren’t good enough. I don’t really buy that — I’m sure that Apple could come up with a perfectly nice, iPod-sized video player if it wanted to.

The big problem is something else Jobs mentioned — a complete lack of content to put on such a video player. You can fill your iPod with music downloaded from online music stores or ripped from CDs you’ve bought; anyone with a digital camera has a ready supply of photos. But where do you get videos? You can’t legally download them off the Internet. And transferring the contents of a DVD onto your Mac’s hard drive is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright act.

I ran into this problem first-hand while I spent some time with the Archos Gmini 400, a small iPod-like device with a bright color screen. It’s exactly the sort of product that people have been demanding from Apple. It’s an iPod-sized device with a hard drive, a color screen that’s buch better than the one on the iPod photo, and the ability to play music, photo slideshows, and MPEG-4 videos.

Sounds great. So am I joining the chorus of people who complain about the lack of a video iPod? No, because my time with the Gmini 400 (and one of Archos’s predecessor products) taught me one painful truth: getting video to play on it is next to impossible. Even when I had downloaded the software to illegally extract video files from my DVDs, or downloaded TV shows from underground file-sharing sites, it was a gigantic headache to find the assorted applications and video codecs required to generate video that the Archos player could play. When I finally got it to work, it ended up taking me hours to re-encode a single 30-minute TV show. No thank you. (And no, selling a video player and telling the people who bought it to go find video files illegally on the Internet is not an acceptable option. It shouldn’t be for anyone, but it’s certainly not acceptable for a company like Apple, which prides itself on the mainstream, easy-to-use appeal of its products.)

There will be a right time for handheld video players, a time when they hit the mainstream. But Apple has made the right call: it’s just not that time. The limitation has nothing to do with the technologies of small color displays, small hard drives, and the like. Instead, it’s a limitation caused by bandwidth concerns (those video files are big ) and, more importantly, caused by the legal issues involved. Until a company with serious credibility in both the technology and entertainment industries can get movie studios and TV networks to agree to try the equivalent of the iTunes Music Store for video, there’s no point in creating a video iPod.

What company will be the one that finally breaks through and makes video downloads popular? There’s no way to know, but with its iPod success and Steve Jobs’s Hollywood ties, I sure wouldn’t bet against Apple. But only when the time is right. And that time isn’t now.

  
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