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Today was one of the computing world's "circle the date" days, in that Steve Jobs gave his regularly schedule keynote speech at the annual Macworld Conference and Expo. What was once just a love-fest between Apple and its small band of developers, Apple's success with the iPod, the iPhone, and its OSX operating system has made the keynote address where Steve Jobs gets to be the ultimate showman of the computer and consumer electronics world.
What does all this have to do with home theaters and movies? Apple just announced a new service that could change the current playing field for distributing movies. But first, let's review some history...
| The Apple TV just got some new features and a new lower list price of $229. (Check for prices on Amazon.com)|
As early as June 2006, I've been posting stories about Apple's desire to migrate its success with music into providing movies. In September 2006, Apple opened the iTunes Movie Store and by last January, they said that they had sold 1 million movies in just four months. It was at the Macworld event last year that Apple announced the Apple TV, a device that was being positioned as a sort of an iPod for your television. Since that time, the Apple TV has not seen a large amount of success and Steve Jobs even called it a "hobby" when asked about it.
This past summer, Apple released a new edition of the iPod, called the iPod Touch, which features a larger screen than the "classic" iPod. The larger size and widescreen aspect ratio made it a no-brainer for watching movies, even if the amount of available memory is a little on the thin side for storing more than a few movies with your music.
The pieces were all there for Apple to create a movie distribution juggernaut (I had to throw a buzzword in there... I just had to!), but they were missing one essential element, which I have pointed out in previous Journal articles:
What I deem to be the most disappointing part about the iTunes announcements in regards to movies is that no mention of adding high definition versions of movies was made. For example, two of the best-selling movies of 2006 were Disney's Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. While both are available in widescreen format (for a reasonable $14.99 each), they do not appear to be available in high definition.
While I believe that including only HDMI and component outputs on the Apple TV will seriously limit its appeal (I want one, but my 32" Zenith in my living room hasn't died yet), I think Apple has a winner on its hands. When the Apple TV was pre-announced back in September (as the iTV), I felt that Apple (and to a lesser extent, Amazon.com with its Unbox effort) was firing a warning shot that should be heard by the industry, especially the Blu-ray and HD DVD manufacturers.
This takes us to today and Steve Jobs' announcement that the iTunes Store has been upgraded with the ability to rent movies from all the major studios, with some in high definition and 5.1 sound! (You can read the as-it-happened report on Engadget) Instead of requiring a host computer for the Apple TV to sync up with iPod-style, the Apple TV is now able to access the iTunes store directly. Oh, and one last thing... they lowered the price of the 40GB model from $299 to $229.
Finally, they have given the Apple TV something to do that takes advantage of its high definition connections! With this announcement, the Apple TV has gone from an interesting "hobby" accessory to an essential piece of a larger picture that gives Apple the ability to distribute HD movies to the general public.
Unlike Blu-ray and HD DVD, they have the support of all the major studios. The Apple TV's $229 price is at least $100 cheaper than the least expensive Blu-ray player, and on the high end of the recently-lowered prices of HD DVD players.
I could not find any movies for rent on the iTunes store yet (rentals are enabled with the newly available version 7.6 of iTunes, so you'll need to download the latest version), so there's no way to judge the selection of movies or the quality of the video or audio. Rentals are now available on the iTunes Store, with a selection of 100 movies. The most recent release is Underdog, from December 18. Notable titles include 300, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Ratatouille, and Live Free or Die Hard. I couldn't find any HD movies yet, so they're either still coming, or you have to have an Apple TV to view that option in the store.
The official Apple web site uses Transformers as an example of a new release that will be available to rent at $3.99 for standard definition and $4.99 for high definition. Library titles will be available at $2.99 and $3.99, respectively.
Not only will you be able to watch these movies on your Apple TV, you will be able to download them to your iPod (in an iPod-friendly size, of course) and PC/laptop for watching on the go. Apple is positioning itself to do to movies what it has done with music, and one would hope that the Blu-ray Disc Association and to a lesser extent, the HD DVD group, now that Warner has hung them out to dry, is taking notice.
The Apple Family of Movie Enjoyment Options
(l to r) Apple TV, iTunes software, iPod Touch, iPod Classic, iPod Nano
Consumers have voted with their wallets that the convenience of MP3's and iTunes-downloaded music is a better value to them than buying CD's in mass quantities. The emergence of the iPod is one of the things that relegated the high resolution music formats of Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio to relative obscurity (among a few self-inflicted blunders).
Will "good enough" movie downloads spell doom for HD media? Unless the Blu-ray and HD DVD groups get moving, they could find themselves sharing the unpopular table with SACD and DVD-Audio. Blu-ray is looking to be the de facto HD format going forward, but its real competition was with standard definition DVD's. If Apple's movie distribution business takes off, Blu-ray might be fighting two large opponents, both of which have unanimous studio support.
The challenges I listed in the Journal article about the Warner Bros. shift to Blu-ray exclusivity apply now more than ever. It's time for the Blu-ray group to step up and provide us with a viable medium that can deliver the best available picture, sound, and overall experience.
Ths post was originally created on 1/15/2008 and has been updated to reflect current updates to the information contained within.
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