Bringing prime time to video iPod

Small developer sees an opening in the lag for Apple to offer top-level TV shows at the iTunes store.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
6 min read
Even with a few more TV shows added to the iTunes store, Chris Cardone said he just can't get enough good video for his video iPod.

So, increasingly, the Cincinnati-based anesthesiologist has been turning to a little-known program called MyTV ToGo, which lets him take shows recorded to his Windows Media Center PC and put them directly onto his video iPod.

"It's fantastic," Cardone said. There were some bugs with the software at first, and it could be a bit slow, he added. But when he was stuck at the hospital on call for hours, at least he did not run out of shows to watch.


What's new:
As Apple only has a handful of top-level video content at its iTunes store, a small California developer has stepped in to offer iPod video fans access to shows recorded on a Media Center PC.

Bottom line:
It's a classic case of a smaller developer, which can shift priorities quickly, being able to fill needs that take longer for big companies work out.

More stories on video and the iPod

Even with Apple Computer's deal last week to add 11 NBC shows to the iTunes store, there still is a paucity of top-shelf video content for the iPod. Digital recording specialist TiVo is promising to change that, but its video-on-the-go option for the iPod won't be ready until next year.

But in stepped little Proxure, a San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based developer, with its $30 MyTV ToGo utility. It takes shows recorded by Microsoft's Windows Media Center software on a PC, converts them and transfers them into a special playlist on the iPod.

The tiny software maker focused on data synchronization software until it debuted the first version of MyTV ToGo earlier this year. That product took recorded TV shows from a Windows Media Center PC and put them on a Pocket PC handheld. Proxure developed the software before portable video devices like the new iPod or Sony's PlayStation Portable became popular.

"We were just fans of the Media Center," said Andreas Benamou, chief technology officer at Proxure. "We built the Pocket PC version, and all of a sudden...it was just kind of the right place at the right time."

Click here to Play

Video: Making your iPod more like a TiVo
Who said only ABC and NBC programs belong in your pocket?

The company now has more than 1,000 registered users, signed up mostly through word of mouth and a little Google keyword advertising. "We never thought when we built (that) it would grow to that many people that quickly," Benamou said.

My TV ToGo is a classic case of what often happens in the software world. Smaller developers, who can shift priorities quickly, are able to fill needs that take longer for the big companies to work out. For example, long before Apple supported connecting an iPod to a Windows PC, a smaller company had a workaround that allowed such a link. However, being first doesn't always guarantee a long-term market or freedom from competition with the industry's giants. Apple, of course, eventually did begin to support Windows for the iPod and, later, with iTunes.

MyTV To Go isn't the only company trying to find new ways of getting video on the iPod. Elgato Systems sells software for recording TV shows on a Mac, and that product provides a means to convert those shows for the video iPod. In addition, several adult entertainment companies are also creating video content for the portable player.

And in addition to the 300 TV show episodes, Pixar shorts and music videos it sells, Apple also helps people get hold of free video Podcasts. Apple said last week that it has sold about three million videos since it announced the video iPod and the expansion of iTunes in October.

In other cases, organizations that distribute and manage video are touting their ability to convert content into iPod-playable forms. Hollywood-based company Bitmax, which manages and stores video for businesses, said Tuesday that its clients will soon be able to offer up their content onto iPods.

"Apple's product offering made this a 'no-brainer' for us, and we are excited to offer it to our clients," Marjorie Bach, a Bitmax executive, said in a statement.

From manual to automatic
The Video iPod can actually play back any video stored in the H.264 or MPEG-4 format and properly sized for the iPod's screen. Apple's own QuickTime Pro software, for example, can convert many types of digital video for playback on the device.

"It's very manual," Benamou said, noting that some software often requires four or five steps to get the video ready to go on the iPod. "We're kind of automating that."

What's on TV?

Video on sale at the iTunes store compared with what's available via MyTV ToGO (if you have a Media Center PC).

iTunes MyTv ToGo
5 ABC/Disney shows
11 NBC Universal shows
6 Pixar short films
2,000 Music videos
All of ABC's lineup
All of NBC's lineup
All of cable TV
(provided you remember to record the show when it airs)
No commercials Shows have commercials
cost: $1.99 apiece
Source: Apple
cost: $30 (one-time fee)

With MyTV ToGO, it is a seamless, if somewhat time-consuming process to move video onto the iPod, a PSP, a Pocket PC handheld or a Microsoft Smartphone, Proxure said. It can take about half the time of the program to create a suitable iPod file, though the company is working to speed this up. The file itself is a fraction of the size of the original recording, which is also preserved.

Not all content owners have been thrilled with seeing existing TV content become portable. NBC complained after TiVo announced Nov. 21 its plans to allow iPod transfers.

"In making this announcement, TiVo appears to be acting unilaterally--disregarding the established rights of content owners to participate in decisions involving the distribution and exploitation of their content," NBC said at the time. "This unilateral action creates the risk of legal conflict instead of contributing to the constructive exploitation of digital technology that can rapidly provide new and exciting experiences for the consumer."

For now, MyTV To Go appears to have found a key niche, offering iPod video fans a significant "ease of use" advantage. In the next few weeks, Proxure plans to release a new version that will offer the option of automatically creating an iPod-friendly version of shows after they are recorded. The shows could then be easily and quickly downloaded the next morning.

Cardone has been testing the updated version and loves that one even more. But it hasn't stopped him from buying episodes of TV shows from Apple.

"'Lost' is one of my favorite shows," he said, referring to the ABC drama, one of several shows available through iTunes. "I've bought several of those. I'd happily pay my $1.99 for those episodes, and they come commercial-free."