How Apple gets its groove back

It is not often that Apple goes into one of its special press events having to play catch-up with some other company’s wheelings and dealings. But that’s the role Apple finds itself in a day before its scheduled September 12 “Showtime” announcement, thanks in no small part to Amazon.com’s freshly unveiled video download store.

In case you missed last week’s launch, the online retailing giant now offers digital video downloads for anywhere from $7.99 to $14.99, depending on the movie. (TV shows are available for the iTunes Music Store-esque price of $1.99.) If you’d rather rent instead of buy, Amazon charges $3.99; you have 30 days to watch the movie, or 24 hours after you first start playing the file.

Of course, I’m using the word “you” theoretically here, since Amazon.com’s service is not compatible with the Mac or the iPod.

Nevertheless, by announcing its movie download service last week, Amazon got the jump on Apple, assuming the computer maker plans to unveil a similar service Tuesday. (And, at this point, that assumption is so widely held, it would be something of a shock if Apple didn’t pull back the curtain on something movie-related.) So how does Apple do Amazon one better, instead of looking like it came down with a bad case of the “Me Toos?”

Well, for starters, Amazon did Apple a favor by setting the bar so ridiculously low that almost any service would look like a dramatic improvement. Just by offering digital movie downloads that are actually compatible with the most popular portable media player in the Western World would make an Apple-backed service infinitely more valuable to more people than anything Amazon could conjure up. Add to that the strong probability that Apple most likely has a new-and-improved iPod in the works—we haven’t seen an update to that product line since the 1GB iPod nano came out earlier this year—and Apple should have no problem knocking Ama-whosits out of the headlines at all, thank you very much.

And yet, I think Apple could do something else Tuesday that would make whatever showtime-related announcement it has in store infinitely more interesting.

Watching movies and TV shows on a 2.5-inch screen is all very well when I’m on an airplane or a commuter train or some other situation that puts a premium on portability. But at the end of the day, I want to watch these programs on a machine that boasts a lot more screen real estate—and I just happen to have such a device in my living room. Now what I need is for some way to get the files I’m buying off the iTunes Music Store from my iPod and on to my television set—quickly, easily, without having to jump through any third-party hoops. I don’t know what form such an offering would take—A set-top box? An AirPort Express-like streaming device? Something else entirely—but I do know that, if executed with Apple’s standard level of care and precision, it will make my life that much more enjoyable.

I’m not saying that Apple has to include such an offering Tuesday to make this media event a rip-roaring success. But I’d certainly walk out of the Yerba Buena Center a happier man.

  
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