iTunes Movie Store? Not Just Yet

With this week’s release of iTunes 4.8, the possibility of an iTunes Movie Store edges just a little closer, with tantalising scraps of evidence suggesting if not an explicit precursor to full scale digital film distribution then at least a dabbling in the waters at the edge to see how things go.

Apple has been streaming video and streaming it well for a very long time. The QuickTime-based Movie Trailers site is pretty much the de-facto site for previews of and trailers for upcoming releases, presumably because there’s less buffering and more video. Trailers have been available in a range of bandwidth/quality settings for a while, and recently Apple has added high-definition 720p and 1080p trailers, encoded with the new H.264 codec that forms the essence of the QuickTime 7 update. At present, only four films (Batman Begins, Fantastic Four, Kingdom of Heaven and Serenity) are available, but this will no doubt become an option for all trailers in the months to come.

With the release of the iTunes Music Store, there came the ability to stream a selection of music videos, mostly, one supposes, for the purposes of enriching the content available through iTMS. No doubt “because we can” featured somewhere on the rationale for this. The problem with the music videos was that, like the movie trailers before them, they could only be streamed, which is a pain even in today’s connected world, because Internet connections are only so fast.

Enter iTunes 4.8 and, according to this Mac Rumors article, two albums and two singles with music videos bundled for download. One also comes with a PDF. Of note is the fact that these files are unencumbered by DRM, although one should not consider this a precedent for the future. If this thing takes off, there should be no doubt that Hollywood will ensure that their content is adequately protected. There won’t be any copying to your iRiver or sharing over P2P.

So this is a start, but how much of a start is it, and where is Apple going with this?

With Apple being the master of smoke and mirrors that it is, making predictions can be something of a black art. Whilst it is likely that at some point they would like to start selling full-length films over iTMS, it seems less likely that this is just round the corner. No-one should be under any illusion that streaming film trailers or music videos and the latest Hollywood epic are one and the same, because they quite simply aren’t. Bandwidth isn’t free, and it’s a real consideration once the file size is, 700MB for a 1h30min film (a not unreasonable assumption – DivX rips of this size/length are generally watchable, and H.264 will bring a marked improvement). How much is Apple going to have to charge for bandwidth alone, and how much are the film studios going to want for their cut? It’s not going to be mere pennies.

Related to this, of course, is the speed of consumers’ connexions. It will take over 3 hours to download a 700MB film on a 512kbps connection (assuming a not-pessimistic 62.5k/sec download speed), and in that time, you could go to your local video rental place, get something out and have finished watching it. Granted, there are, these days, faster connections, but then we have to start considering the speed of Apple’s pipe. We’re talking about phenomenal amounts of data here.

The other, perhaps more obvious thing is playback hardware – what are we going to play these films on? Beautiful though they are, most people do not have a Mac in the living room next to (or even instead of) the telly. Steve Jobs has said on more than one occasion that the iPod’s immediate future is not in video, because watching films is an immersive experience which requires one’s full attention, whereas music can accompany you almost anywhere. And until we can roll or fold them up, screens big enough to be watchable are not portable.

What in fact seems more likely is an evolution of the AirPort Express (the AirPort Express Extreme?) with a video out. You’ve already got a cable running to your hifi, so why not run another to that nice big screen? There are probably some latency issues to resolve (hello WiMAX?), and it requires not a small amount of horsepower to decode H.264, so some form of dedicated chip will probably be in order, but this seems the better option to take advantage of the high quality offered by this latest iteration of the MPEG4 specification.

However, with the AirPort Express Extreme approach, there could arise something of a chicken-and-egg problem. The iPod and the subsequent emergence of iTMS worked rather well. iTunes came first, and users assembled a music library using CDs that they already had. The iPod enabled people to carry their music libraries with them, and iTMS to add new music to their libraries without purchasing CDs – it added convenience and instant gratification.

But with films, it could be a bit harder. Users with legitimately-acquired films stored on their computers are doubtless outnumbered by those who have procured the content through means shady, mostly because it has traditionally been so difficult to get full-length films on to a computer. To date, Apple has not provided any such solution (although I cannot resist a plug for the excellent Handbrake, which goes a long way to making the process relatively pain-free), and furthermore QuickTime will not play most “procured” content due to codec-related issues. So as Apple offers no way of getting video on to a machine, and QuickTime cannot play what you have already, the AirPort Express Extreme could be rather difficult to sell. Who wants to stream video to the telly if you don’t have any video to play on it?

Perhaps the iTunes Movie Store will be announced at the same time as the AirPort Express Extreme, so those wanting the best experience will have to shell out for this add-on, which won’t be that cheap. The rest of us will be stuck watching the films on our computers, which certainly reduces their appeal for some. Burning them to disc seems an unlikely option, because an H.264-to-MPEG2 transcode will take too long. The only other possibility might be an enhanced iPod with the video out port used for video display, but there the issue of processing power for decoding returns. It’s all rather difficult.

Online film distribution is more a matter of when rather than if, and Apple will almost certainly lead the way in packaging it in an accessible format for end users, likely leveraging the iTunes Music Store platform that they have created. They will, of course, want to be ahead of the pack, but not so far ahead that they end up trying to sell to a niche market, and until the infrastructure (AirPort Express Extreme, faster consumer Internet connections, etc.) is in place, that’s all there’ll be. Cringely has been on about it for a while (although he’s almost certainly off the mark with the suggestion that the Mac mini is to be used as a PVR), but make no mistake, the world isn’t really ready for it. Not just yet, anyway.