What is Apple releasing on Tuesday?

Apple is holding a press event on Tuesday, and the invitations said "It's Showtime". There's been much speculation, with plenty of "informed" rumors, that they're going to launch an "iTunes Movie Store" from which people can download full-length movies for $14.99. By all accounts, this seems likely.

But why? Others have tried, and failed miserably, to offer legal movie download services. The main reasons for failure:

  1. High prices. I'm not paying $25, more than the cost of the DVD, for a DRM-restricted proprietary file that I can only watch in Windows Media Player.
  2. Portable device support. Nothing has been compatible with the portable players that people actually buy: video iPods and portable DVD players. (Nobody cares about WMV PlaysForSure devices.)
  3. TV support. Most people don't like watching movies on computers. They'll occasionally watch DVDs on laptops when traveling, but they're much happier to take that DVD and put it in a regular player, sit on the couch 10 feet away from the 35" TV, and watch in comfort.

The last two can be solved by allowing people to burn their purchased movies to DVDs. This isn't a technical problem, it's a political one: the movie publishers, in their infinite wisdom toward technology, are paranoid of piracy and won't allow it. One service got them to make an exception recently, under the condition that they "protect" against copies by corrupting the DVD data so badly that it can barely even be played (and becomes useless if you slightly scratch it or look at it the wrong way). It doesn't look likely that the MPAA companies will relax their DVD-burning ignorance.

Because of these horrendous failures, the launch of a new video download service usually isn't a big deal. Amazon just launched their "Unboxed" video download service yesterday, and nobody cared. It doesn't solve any of the problems people have with the existing services.

Why will Apple's product be different?

The AirPort Express

Apple's wireless routers don't get much attention because they're insanely expensive. Why would I buy a 54G router for $130-200 when I can get the latest crappy Linksysnetgeardlinkbelkin rebate special for $30 and replace it with a better model for less when it dies in 6 months?

But the little Apple router, the AirPort Express, has a neat little feature: "AirTunes" wireless music transmission. You can play music from iTunes over the wireless network and the AirPort Express will receive the signal and play it out to a stereo. This way, you can have your computer at the other end of the house while listening to its music on the living room stereo.

The record industry almost flipped out, but Apple calmed them down by encrypting the transmission. That way, users couldn't capture the nicely uncompressed version of their copy-protected iTunes Music Store purchases and save them as DRM-free files.

I think I see where this is going.

A few companies recently released short-range wireless HDMI transmitters. HDMI is a standard for carrying full-resolution digital HD video and (analog, I think) audio, but with encryption to please the MPAA and allow the output of digital video. (There's a reason why regular DVD players never output digital video, and it's not technical.)

Apple has encryption in place that allows protected audio and video files to play on any Mac or Windows computer and any iPod. The protection is good enough to satisfy the publishers.

Connect the dots, laaa laaa la la

The video AirPort Express.

It solves almost every major problem that video download services have faced. If videos can play on almost any computer and the only portable devices people care about, the last hurdle is TV support. A "video AirTunes" (bad name guess: AirShow) could output component video and HDMI (but definitely not DVI) without inciting the wrath of the MPAA.

$15 per movie is steep, but I don't think Apple has much say in that. They're lucky that the MPAA isn't charging them $35 each. A better price point would be $12 or $9.

Front Row

All Intel Macs except the Mac Pro come with a little remote for a basic media playback interface called Front Row. It can play music and video files from iTunes, plus videos elsewhere on the computer.

iTunes has always had the ability to share your music library across the network so you could play it on other computers. (Or so your entire college dorm could "share" music.)

Combine these with the idea of a video AirPort Express, Front Row, and a movie- and TV-download service (they already have TV shows for sale), and you can:

  1. Play movies and TV shows wirelessly from your computer onto your TV, where you'll want to watch them 90% of the time. The video AirPort Express could use an Apple remote with a Front Row interface right on the TV.
  2. Play movies and TV shows on your iPod.
  3. Play movies and TV shows on your Mac or PC laptop with iTunes.

We've had the last two for a while, but they're not strong enough on their own to drive major market success: people need to be able to watch video on the world's most popular video playback device while sitting on the world's most popular type of lounge furniture.

Pulling this off well would change everything.