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Will iPod movie rentals take off?

Senior Editor Donald Bell speculates on the future of renting videos for the iPod.

Photo of iPod Homer Simpson silhouette.
Video rental comes to the iPod. Can Apple finally make download video rental succeed for a portable device?
Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

From an iPod perspective, the biggest announcement from Macworld 2008 has to be iTunes video rentals. Beginning in February, those of you who own an iPhone, iPod Classic,iPod Touch, or 3G iPod Nano, will be able to rent and transfer movies from iTunes. iTunes movie rentals will be priced at $3.99 for new releases and $2.99 for older titles. While I'll have to wait and see how well renting movies in iTunes works, at first glance this looks like a huge win for the iPod.

Only a few competing MP3 players have dipped their toes into integrated video rental services. Specifically, the Archos line of portable video players and the Samsung YP-P2 have an arrangement with CinemaNow, which allows identically-priced movie rentals. While Apple might not be the first to pioneer DRM-protected movie rentals, no one has pulled it off at this scale. The built-in audience of iTunes users and iPod owners provides a staggering amount of leverage for Apple to completely change the way people rent and watch movies. But will it really stick?

From my point of view, Apple's video rental DRM strategy is a big roadblock to people renting movies specifically for their iPod. Apple's rental terms afford users 30 days to decide when to watch their downloaded movie rental, and then 24 hours to finish watching it after the movie has started. For users who are renting movies to watch at home, Apple's rental terms seem adequate, if a little stingy. At home, most of us are free from distraction and will have no problem consuming a movie within 24 hours of starting it. On a portable device, however, I predict that the 24-hour limitation will be very frustrating.

Unless I'm on a transcontinental flight, I have a tough time getting through a full movie on a portable video player. I usually watch half of a movie on the departure flight and half on the return--a scenario that wouldn't work with Apple's proposed DRM scheme. Apple's PR representatives at Macworld touted the ability to start a rented movie on a computer or Apple TV, and later transfer the video to an iPod to finish it on the go. While I'm happy Apple's rental DRM-protection doesn't hamper the transfer of movies between devices, the idea of rushing to finish last night's movie on my morning commute seems needlessly stressful.

Why can't Apple's movie rental DRM simply allow users one complete play of the movie, digested in as many small doses as needed, within a 30-day period? Wouldn't that be a more user-friendly approach? What advantage does the 24-hour restriction afford Apple? Whatever money Apple makes from customers renting a movie twice because the DRM expired, can't be worth the frustration it causes the user.

So what do you guys think? Will an iTunes movie rental make it onto your iPod in the near future, or will the DRM make renting strictly an at-home activity? If Apple's offer isn't perfect, what would seal the deal for you?