My 3G ipod and cell phone are getting a little long in the tooth so I eagerly awaited today’s announcement from Steve Jobs to hear about what new revolutionary consumer electronics his flip-flop wearing elves would build next. I read numerous articles on digg and Slashdot that speculated that a widescreen IPOD with touchscreen interface and/or an apple cellphone would be announced. Instead he revealed that they shiney’d up the nano with some metallic appliqué, converted the stupid chewing gum form factor of the shuffle into a stupid matchbook form factor and somehow managed to figure out a way to make downloads of Disney movies available in sub VHS quality for $15. Where ever do they find the time?

Unfortunately Apple doesn’t seem to learn from its past mistakes. Until at least 1993 Apple had a superior product that dominated the market. For years they justifiably ridiculed the competition for even attempting to equal them. The problem is that eventually the competition succeeded and they never recovered. Now in the portable media player market they are similarly vulnerable. Already Toshiba has produced a media player that’s widely considered to be superior to anything apple has and Microsoft is on the verge of releasing a wide format media player and an increasing number of cellphones contain impressive media playback capabilities.

Steve, your serve has again been broken. Can we look forward to you flaking out, getting fired by the board and trying to start a company that makes ridiculously expensive and underperforming cube shaped cell phones that virtually no one but Earlham will purchase* only to come back in 2020 to save the day? That would be insanely great.

*Yeah, for some inexplicable reason someone at Earlham decided to buy NeXT workstations in the 90’s instead of the cheaper and much more powerful Suns like everyone else.


Ben said...

For starters I have an iPod and I have been quite happy with it, in fact, it got me to go whole hog on a Mac desktop, so I'm speaking from a Apple-centric bias. I've seen the nano, played around with it a little bit, and think it's pretty neat, the colors are fine. I'd buy the new shuffle in a heart-beat if I could get my shins to not want to splinter every time I try to jog. But in the end, there's no accounting for taste. You can think it's chincy crap, I can love it, whatever.

When it comes to long range strategy, I think they're exactly on target. Jobs is not convinced that anyone is going to want to watch movies on a tiny-ass screen, and I think rightly so. Remember all those movies that came out in the PSP format last year? They're not there anymore. They failed, it was a big bet and Sony lost, see the NeXT debacle for the Steve Jobs version of this failure. Apple (and this incarnation of Steve) doesn't appear to be going down that road.

The TV shows Apple has been selling have amounted to found money for them and the producers. Being able to download movies (that they have easy access to thanks to Steve-o's position at Disney) at least gets the ball rolling and familiarizes people with the process and possibly greases the wheels for signing other studios and independant content. AKA, the producers who aren't yet sold on the idea.

By the way the image is at "sub-DVD" quality, 640 X 480 resolution, technically equivilant to VHS but really better since most SD TV's never get to use that entire dimention. Plus, it's just a codec. It's a software limitation tied to the iPod, eventually if it catches on and they introduce the iTV box in December they can loosen that restriction and eventually introduce HD content (that last part about HD is conjecture as I understand it). With any luck you'll be able to buy a show or a movie on your computer and watch it wherever you want. That's a big deal if it works, and Apple looks like it's taking it slow, so if it bombs or makes a misstep they'll be fine.

But don't just take it from me, take it from :
"First, i thought it was smart of Apple to announce their ITV product. Streaming from a PC to a device connected to your TV with multiple connectivity options , HDMI, Component, Digital Audio is certainly nothing new. IO Data has a box that can wirelessly read from a PC, as do others. I use15 an IO data box as a DVD player as well as for playing back directly from a portable hard drive to an HDTV. That said, I dont think there is any question that Apples implementation will be cleaner and more popular.

There are a couple things that are special about Apple's announcement today as it pertains to Movies and TV shows.

1. The 80gbs hard drive.
The opportunity to download movies to a hard drive and KEEP THEM THERE and replay them AS OFTEN AS THE USER LIKES. Is critical. Its a great first step towards carrying around your video library as easily as you carry around your music. As hard drives grow, so will the number of titles you can store, and of course the door will open for high def. Its clear that the Ipod is not only a playback device, but is a personal or family digital content host.

I personally have digitized almost every picture and home movie i have ever taken or had given to me . I currently only have room on my IPod for the pics, my music and a few videos. As storage expands, so will my storage of personal content. I also have found transferring baby pics and videos to a new Ipod and giving it as a gift to relatives is easy and more humane than making everyone sit through the pics and videos at our house.

2. THe 1.5mbs encoding speed for self proclaimed "near DVD quality" is important. First of all it sets a quality floor using H.264 and they didnt lie and call it DVD quality. Others that want to call their offerings DVD quality will at least have to match. It also means that HD quality, when it comes, will really be HD quality at 8mbs or more encoding levels.

3. The first two items are nice , but its No 3 that is tthe key to the future of digital content.

The most important element of Apple's announcement today is that the IPod interface is now viewable on your HDTV. Cable and Satellite companies are working hard, spending tens of millions of dollars to optimize their Programming Guides to incorporate Video On Demand, DVR ability, Internet Content, Purchase of content and TV Programming Guides. Of course this is a matter of my opinion, but I think that the Apple interface, because it already has tens of millions of consumers trained to buy content on impulse has to have the edge. Adding a Programming Guide of TV shows and controlling a tuner (in your TV using OCAP possibly) or a tuner built into a future ITV box would put it square in the crosshairs of the cable and satellite companies as a direct competitor."

He adds the caveat that signing those other studios will be a battle, and so will beating out cable companies for a spot on or under your tv, dolling out content. And then there's Wal-Mart, who's sure to put up a fuss being that they represent something like 40% of all movies sold.

My interest is primarily from the standpoint of the independant filmmaker. While I'm not one of those yet, I keep abreast of this stuff and another blog I keep tabs on, HDforIndies.com has a
similar take on the iTV bit:

"UPDATE Wednesday: I left too soon! The press event was occurring as I was about to go to dinner, it sounded like it was wrapping up and I headed out to dinner before I heard about iTV, Apple's set top box to do all the stuff I've been conjecturing about for over a year. The only major difference is that I figured it'd be a wall wart Airport Express kind of a thing, but since they are clearly putting some graphics brains in it, it is a media extender fully fledged, so it has to be a bit bigger. I got the functionality right - wired or wireless streaming of movies downloaded to ANY computer, with a decoder box to handle the codecs. It doesn't ship until next year, but It clearly handles at LEAST H.264 if not MPEG-2. At $299 (again, in line with my predictions I'm pleased to say), it is expensive for a DVD player, but cheap IF it will decode HD content - the fact that it has an HDMI and component outputs bodes EXTREMELY well for that - it ALREADY drives an HD monitor, but why have SD content on an HD monitor (I can already here the Steve speech in my head). How they'll deliver that content at truly HD quality remains to be seen.

This is big, BIG news, as I expect Apple in the future to get more studios in, maybe offer indies access to distro online in a year or two, eventually scale up to HD, etc. etc. etc. all kinds of exciting stuff."

Lame? From the iPod POV, maybe. From the iTunes/iTV POV, almost certainly not. Wait 'till December.

Andrew said...

I wasn’t trying to be a hater when I wrote this post. I was simply trying to state that I think Apple’s recent efforts are too little to late. The changes made to his portable media offerings were nothing more than cosmetic (see circa 2000 flavored iMacs or any dell sporting a bigger HD). They are not innovations. When I wrote this post on Tues night there really wasn’t any reporting on iTV yet and I agree that does sound more like the kind of ambitious product that warrants the hullabaloo of a Steve Jobs product announcement. I can kind of see how Steve is attempting to make H.264 vs. DVD an analogue to MP3 (or AAC) vs. CD but I’m not sure it’ll work.

1.) Movies are huge in comparison to compressed audio. The fidelity difference between MP3 and CD is barely noticeable while H.264 vs. DVD is (I’m sure H.264 is a much better lossy codec than MPEG-2 but I doubt it can account for the 1.5 MB/S vs. 4-8MB/S for DVD MPEG-2).
2.) I’m sure that higher bitrates will be offered in the futue but won’t this confuse the marketplace? If I buy Pirates of the Caribbean now at 1.5MB/s and a year from now it’s available in HD can I get it again at the higher bitrate for free? Discount price? Full price?
3.) It’s hard for me to understand why someone would want to pay near retail ($15) for media that would take many hours to download (yes I know you can kind of watch it as streams but you’re still saturating your internet connection). HD content would be many times worse.
4.) Like iTunes the movies would be DRM’d so they’d be stuck on your machine viewable only by you. There could very well be a burn feature like in iTunes but issue 1 would still be an issue.
5.) iTV as I understand it will contain very little onboard storage and instead stream movies over a wireless connection from (hopefully) one’s Power Mac. OSX’s thread management isn’t nearly as sophisticated as Redmond’s product so if anyone happens to fire up a big app on the powermac it’s reasonable to expect to lose some frames in the movie.

In short I think iTV will be the best effort at this sort of thing yet but so many very large technological limitations currently exist that I think were looking at a good idea rushed to the market too soon like the Newton rather than an iPod or mac classic which took existing commodity technology and for the time executed it perfectly. That’s why it’s so frustrating for me to see less than ideal implementations of iPod enhancements come from Microsoft. The planets are aligning for them to steal Apples lunch once again.

Joe said...

Can one of you guys explain what's going on with this stuff to someone who has no idea what all the numbers and acronyms mean?

Andrew said...

This doesn't bode well for Apple's video content intitives.