Open Thread: Streaming vs. Downloads

The big news that’s going around is that Apple could soon replace its existing digital download model with streaming audio and video files. So instead of downloading massive video files to an iPhone, iPad or next-generation Apple TV, users will stream those video files instead.

It seems like streaming should be a no-brainer for Apple, especially since most online video publishers have already made that choice. YouTube, Netflix and Hulu all stream their video over the Internet — including to apps on Apple devices like the iPhone and iPad. Apple, meanwhile, still has the same strategy as when the iTunes store was first launched 2003, when most devices were hard drive-based and not connected to the Internet, requiring users to download their content before taking it on the go. But for Apple’s new stable of products, which rely on flash memory and are frequently connected to the Internet, the model is out of date.

The next-gen Apple TV is expected to follow this trend, and will reportedly ship with 16 GB of flash memory (or less), which means that — unlike its 160 GB predecessor — a download model won’t work for consumers who plan to watch large amounts of video on the device. A typical hour-long, standard definition TV download from iTunes is about 600 MB to 800 MB, and about twice that size in HD. Which means that even if an iTunes user wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to download and watch an entire season of 24 or Lost on the Apple TV.

That said, downloadable media still has its perks. In situations where a user knows he might not have Internet access, the ability to download and take a piece of content on the go is a plus. Perhaps more importantly, new data plans from AT&T restrict the amount of video that users can stream on devices like the iPhone and iPad that are connected to its 3G network.

While time-consuming, the ability to download and transfer the files to these devices could keep users from going over their data plan limits — which is important, considering that, according to AT&T’s estimates, users will only be able to watch about 20 minutes of standard def video on its $15 200 MB data plan, and only 200 minutes of standard def video per month with the 2GB plan.

Given the different use cases that are still available on Apple TV and older iPod products, Apple may continue offering downloads. But which do you prefer? The ability to stream files whenever you’re connected? Or the ability to download and take videos with you, even when you don’t have a wireless connection?

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