iTunes and Movies Don’t Mix: How Apple Can Fix This Now

by Hadley Stern Sep 11, 2007

iTunes is a victim of its pedigree. It began its life as Soundjam, an excellent mp3 music player and manager that was acquired by Apple. What Apple has done with iTunes is nothing but miraculous. It can manage huge music libraries, sync with the dozens of iPods out there, register and activate a cell phone, stream music around the house to Airport Express and the Apple TV, manage podcasts, manage the purchasing and downloading of digital rights managed content, and more.

That is a lot.

What iTunes doesn’t do well is deal with video content. Apple has done a fabulous job thus far of not making it feel like things are not just being bolted on. The iTunes ecosystem (or is it, almost, an operating system?) has grown organically and intelligently except for one use-case, movies.

Apple has a huge problem with movie content in iTunes and if it wants iTunes to remain a viable contender as a realistic distribution and consumption model for movies things have to change. And fast. It is only a matter of time before all video and music content resides in one location, streamed down to consumers to consume. Just like there is no reason to have thousands or millions of CDs of the same content, there is no reason to have thousands or millions of digital files sitting on people’s hard drives. It doesn’t make sense from a distribution standpoint, economically, or environmentally. The writing is on the wall with Tivo, and cable on-demand services. Everything will be available digitally in a centralized fashion. It is up to Apple to decide now if it wants to be part of that story or not. Let’s look at some things iTunes could do now to address this.

1. Movie rentals. The 2nd largest user of the US postal system? Netflix. People love to rent movies for reasons that all make a ton of sense. We tend to watch them only once, and the price is right. Apple has the hardware in place with the Apple TV. Companies like Vudo are already offering what Apple should be offering, digital downloads of movies via the rental model. (Maybe Apple should acquire Vudo like it did SoundJam and Coverflow. The movie use-case is inevitable. Any market leader in this space has to address it.

2. Quality. Apple is in direct contradiction with the trends in the home-movie viewing space. Stereo sound simply isn’t good enough. And the HD quality isn’t either. The digital downloading viewing experience needs to be at least as good as a DVD and, ultimately, as good as Blue Ray otherwise it isn’t going to stick.

Apple has a tremendous opportunity here to grab this market by the horns and own the digital movie experience much like it owns the digital music experience. With some changes in strategy iTunes could become the VHS or DVD of home movie watching. Without changes? Betamax.


  • Are you saying that adding HD, Dolby Digital, and Movie Rentals is all it takes to make iTunes a success with video?

    I think those things are a natural next step with iTunes. Of more importance to long term success will be an ability to effectively manage a large amount of video across multiple devices in an efficient and easy manner… something which iTunes isn’t so good at (yet).

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Sep 11, 2007 Posts: 228
  • Hadley, I think you are trying to mesh “form and function” by: Apple has a huge problem with movie content in iTunes…It is only a matter of time before all video and music content resides in one location, streamed down to consumers to consume.

    to “fit and polish” in: What iTunes doesn’t do well is deal with video content. Apple has done a fabulous job thus far of not making it feel like things are not just being bolted on. <u>to</u> Apple is in direct contradiction with the trends in the home-movie viewing space.

    Those two qualities are not one of the same and should not be confused. One subjective. The other objective qualities.

    Yes, I absolutely agree with you that iTunes has so far focused its energies towards supporting the new media technologies to date. The additions of the AppleTV streaming, iPhone integration, etc. has rendered the video/movie support languishing since, ahh, the video iPod and AppleTV.

    The iTunes developers need to go back to the labs and fine tune this video/movie presentation layer to work seamlessly with Quicktime. As it stands right now, no HDTV fan will want to watch any video/movie from iTunes on their big panels. But they do look very good on those video iPods’ and iPhone’s screen rez though.

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 11, 2007 Posts: 846
  • Although, FrontRow has improved upon the video/movie presentation, per se, the ordinary user does not see it that way. iTunes-to-FrontRow integration must be done from within iTunes and not just via the teeny remote. And yes, the video/movie quality still sucks in FrontRow except my custom self-encoded movies from my DVD collection.

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 11, 2007 Posts: 846
  • The thing about video is that it really has what I’d call “severe value issues” as it is sold digitally today.

    Consider. You have one of those moments when you hear a song in some youtube video or similar and suddenly you realise your subconscious is saying “mmm, funky!” Now you fire up itunes and sure enough you don’t have that song sitting in the thousand or so un-listened-to tracks therein so you think to yourself, yo, I’ll go gets me some of that.

    But hark. You have two options. One: point your browser at, open limewire or eDonkey if you must, or use some google haxies and obtain the song within a few minutes. Downsides to this are you can’t vouch for the quality, it’s most likely 128 kbps MP3 which, to many of us, sucks. You also will probably have to enter most of the metadata yourself, and definitely find your own album artwork if you’re that way inclined. But hey, a playable version of the song that you and your fellow squatters can rock out to.

    Option number two: well iTunes is already open, it’s but one click to get to the Store, wherein you search and BOOM the song leaps at you like a rabid ninja. You have it in your library within seconds, it comes with bootiful album artwork and all metadata pre-configured, in 128 kbps AAC which is considered Perfectly Good by the majority of the ear population, gives you a warm fuzzy inner glow for not having committed a crime, and moreover could even be 256 kbps which is Really Quite Darned Great Quality (an ISO standard) in which case you get an extra warm fuzzy glow knowing that you won’t have to jump through any hoops to play it wherever and whenever you choose for the rest of eternity, mirabile dictu, and have supported the cause of DRM-free music, hurrah.

    Additionally, the DRM’d iTunes tracks can easily be stripped of their DRM by anyone with intelligence bordering on that of the Cnidarian, or those with friends of such virtue.

    Thus the advantages offered by purchasing an iTunes track rather than downloading one by P2P are:
    - Much easier, much faster
    - Can preview song
    - No need to sift through low quality versions/porn site adverts til you get something decent
    - Comes with nice album artwork, metadata entered for you
    - Guaranteed good quality, or very good quality if on Plus
    - Like the free version, can be played anywhere either immediately with no effort or with a small amount of effort, if for instance in the future you suddenly became a masochist and want to switch to Zune, lmao
    - Warm fuzzy inner glow

    And what is the price for these advantages? In my country, 79 pennies, or 99 pennies for Extra Glowing version.

    Now that is a trifling amount of money that give tangible benefits, the most important of which being extreme ease and speed of obtaining the song, and guaranteed sound quality. It is in other words not just a viable alternative to P2P music downloads; music from iTunes offers an acutely preferable experience that is worth the often negligible amount of money it costs.


    On the video side this is just not the case. Consider the (digital) options when wanting to watch season two of Grey’s Anatomy.
    Firstly: Search on a torrent site or whatever and let your computer download the entire series over a few consecutive nights, for free.
    Secondly: Purchase the entire series on iTunes for THIRTY TWO FUCKING NINETY NINE, wait about 8 hours for them to download then begin to consume them ONLY ON YOUR APPLE HARDWARE.

    Now what features of the iTunes option differentiate it from the illegal option?
    - Lower quality: TV episodes DL’d from P2P are commonly pretty much DVD quality in some DIVX MP4 codec. Those from iTunes are termed “near-dvd quality” but in reality this is bullshit: they are blocky and scale poorly, looking pretty bad even on the smallest last-generation iMac at fullscreen (cf South Park episodes).
    - DRM means you can only play it on your Mac, video iPod or buy an TV for >= two hundred pounds upon which when paired to your HDTV it will look absolutely terrible. P2P-obtained, DRM-free video can be stored for conversion to play on any player for the rest of time.
    - Despite onerous restrictions on what can be done with it, it costs as much as the DVD! Whereas if you buy the DVD, you can again rip and convert it with free software (legally, at least in not-completely-corrupt countries) to play on Whatever.
    - It is easier and faster than using P2P.

    iTunes video offers only two advantages over file sharing: it is easier and quicker. However it has many disadvantages that decrease its value: onerous DRM restrictions (cannot play it without Apple hardware, ffs), significantly lower quality, etc.

    So this is what I mean when I say it has value issues. It is a poor alternative to DVDs, which cost the same but are far more valuable. It is even a poor quality product to the free, illegal P2P video downloads that every man and his jellyfish can use - and it costs £32 more per series, or an ∞% increase for the mathematically easily-amused.

    Compared to the free option, with the qualities it has, I consider iTunes video is worth as much as a music track AT MOST. Give me ACTUAL DVD-quality products WITHOUT DRM that hugely resctrics the value of the product at the price of the DVD, and I’ll think about it.

    Mr. Typical Dude, faced with these options, opts to download the series by P2P every time, because 32 quid is just not a fair price for the product. The product’s real value is much lower.

    So the question, if I can even remember it after rambling this long, is how do we fix this. Well the answer is we probably can’t, until a studio/distributor/thingy comes along that truly “gets it”. Then there are two options: concede the low inherent value of current offerings and slash prices. This is probably the only viable option at present, bandwidth constrained as we are. Or, raise the quality to HD and/or remove the DRM restrictions to raise the value of the product to the level of the current price.

    Til then, I’m waiting, and so will most of my fellow Americans.

    And you are my fellow Americans.

    Benji had this to say on Sep 11, 2007 Posts: 927
  • PS also, I agree about video rentals.

    Benji had this to say on Sep 11, 2007 Posts: 927
  • Ben, well rambled and presented…

    As for the possibility for video rentals on iTunes. We’ve already seen a hack by Dave Watanabe, the lead devo of Xtorrent that exposed iTunes’ preparations of such, courtesy of Ars Technica.

    Prior I have argued for iTunes to incorporate Torrent technology to lessen the load capacity issues that will surely surface. Hence, we have Dave W. plying the layers of iTunes/Quicktime there. If I were Apple I will outright hire D.W. to the iTunes/Quicktime team and get this xTorrent layer bolted on.

    The real possibilities are enormous, of course. I can see this as a complete replacement for Netflix and Blockbusters’ offerings. Those two just don’t have the tight provider-customer bind that characterizes the iTunes/iPod/iPhone/ÓTV universe.

    I can see Apple eyeing this and should be very intent on entering this space soon enough no matter what the purists and cynics will throw out. The technology is there. The consumers are ready. Why the wait?

    Robomac had this to say on Sep 11, 2007 Posts: 846
  • Benji, I agree with your points, but you’re talking about TV mostly, not movies.  Many of the same points apply, of course, with a few differences.

    Price.  A crippled hihgly compressed iTunes movie costs $15 for a new title.  That compares to about $20 or less for a full rez DVD with few restrictions and probably a host of bonus features.

    Resolution.  Blocky 640x480 for iTunes.  720x480 for DVD.  No HD option whatsoever for iTunes.

    DRM.  You can your iTunes movie on your Apple-branded products.  And that’s it.  Unlike iTunes music, the DRM cannot be removed.  Even if the DRM were not easily circumvented, DVDs play in thousands of different devices without any authorization needed.

    And of course you can rip any DVD to the same or better quality to play on every device an iTunes movie does, without the cost or restrictions.

    Buying a movie off of iTunes is a fool’s choice.

    And that’s not including the fact that movies in iTunes are, in fact, bolted on.  The meta tags for movies are poorly implemented and clearly a legacy of the music side.

    I think a rental model would go a long way to making movies in iTunes viable for all of the reasons listed above.  It makes the DRM, the resolution (unless you want HD), and the pricing all moot.

    Right now, the best online rental model Netflix, with it’s Watch Now feature (although it is sadly not yet compatible with Macs or Firefox).  But your flat fee subscription, you get hard copy DVDs in the mail PLUS 17 hours of on-demand video for FREE.

    iTunes is much more likely to go a-la-cart, or a per movie pricing model.  But if the price is right (less than $4), I can definitely see myself taking advantage.  And if the movies are offered in HD, then even better.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Sep 11, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • Beeblebrox.
    Iirc, the downloaded iTunes movies are not even 640x480, they are 640x360 (for the 16:9 ratio).

    This is the maximum resolution the iPods have been able to handle, and Apple is selling the lowest common denominator.

    Of course, the new Problem Reporting errors include “WrongVersion-RentalMovie”.. so lets hope for rentals & HD versions.

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Sep 12, 2007 Posts: 228
  • I would say that they need to revamp podcasting in terms of how you organize them, or rather the lack of organizational features for podcasts.  I’d like to be able to organize them by content rather than simply in alphabetical order.  As it stands, once you have more than a handful of podcasts it gets to be quite the mess.  If they would just let you have folders in the podcasting section to better organize them, I would be happy.  Larry King and Meet the Press could go with my CBC podcasts and TWIT and TWIM could go with Cranky Geeks.  As it stands it’s a jungle out there.

    Chicken2nite had this to say on Sep 14, 2007 Posts: 79
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