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Apple's iTV: promise and peril

Apple's iTV: promise and peril

It's rare that the notoriously secretive Apple ever gives a sneak peek at a forthcoming product. But that's exactly what the company did at yesterday's press event, giving a guided tour of the "iTV" (the device's developmental codename). Scheduled to be available in the first quarter of 2007 for $299, the iTV is little network media box that will stream all of your iTunes-based media--including music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and photos--from your PC or Mac to your HDTV and home audio system. The goal is to let you enjoy all of that content on your big-screen TV and home-theater system while you're parked comfortably on the sofa, rather than having to be hunched over your computer--or having to jury-rig A/V cables from your laptop to your TV. Indeed, the iTV is essentially a video-enabled Airport Express.

A veritable army of wonks and pundits have been salivating at the concept of such a "Home iPod" for years; take Steven Johnson's August 22 article at Slate.com: An iPod for TV: how Apple could make it work, for example. But before the Apple faithful pop the champagne corks and declare the company the new king of consumer electronics, let's look at the unanswered questions--and potential shortcomings--of the iTV. Is it really the über-media box that everybody's been waiting for? Here are several issues that give us cause for concern--along with our suggestions on how to address them.

File compatibility and media support: how extensive?
What we know: The iTV will stream anything you buy at the iTunes store--music, movies, and TV shows--as well as most of the other media that you use iTunes to access, including ripped music, photos, and video and audio podcasts.
What we'd like to see: We'd assume that any video you've already imported or transcoded into an iTunes or iPod-friendly format will be able to stream as well. But it'd be nice to drop the transcoding step altogether and just be able to point the iTV to a directory on our computer's hard drive, where we can stream all of our video files already encoded in standard formats--DivX, AVI, WMV, QuickTime, and the like--straight to the TV. Yes, some of these files could indeed be pirated, but that was always an unacknowledged key to the iPod's success: it let you enjoy the fruits of your illicit gains (a hard drive full of ripped MP3s) while giving you a path to the straight and narrow (paid, copy-protected downloads via iTunes). While we've got the wish list out, it'd be great to see support for Rhapsody. There's no way that'll happen, so how about a flat-fee iTunes music service instead? (See Pricing, below.)

Resolution: standard- or high-definition? Aspect ratio: 4:3 standard or 16:9 wide-screen?
What we know: The first movies available from the iTunes store will be at 640x480 resolution. That's identical to standard TV resolution but short of the 720x480 wide-screen EDTV resolution offered by DVDs. But the iTV offers only HDMI and component outputs--no composite or S-Video--which pretty much guarantees that it's going to be connected to HDTVs--and wide-screen HDTVs, at that.
What we'd like to see: Ideally, we'd like to see movies and TV shows at optimal HD quality: 1080p wide-screen with full Dolby Digital surround sound. Of course, that would entail massive file sizes and networking bottlenecks, even using the efficient H.264 video codec; opting for 1080i and 720p wouldn't save too much space, either. A good compromise would be 480p wide-screen: 720x480. Then the movies could be accurately advertised as "DVD quality," and still look relatively sharp on HD screens. But this transition--from 320x240 (the old iTunes video format) to 640x480 (the new iTunes video format) to a possible future high-res or wide-screen version--begs the urgent question of whether it's worth holding off on any video purchases until Apple unveils its ultimate video format. Otherwise, you're stuck in the same upgrade cycle we've all come to hate: buying the same favorite films on VHS, then LaserDisc, then DVD, then HD-DVD/Blu-ray, and so on--albeit with digital files rather than physical media. (See Pricing structure, below.)

Wireless networking protocols: 802.11 what?
What we know: The iTV will support connectivity to home networks via Ethernet and "802.11 wireless" networking. But Apple remained mum on which flavors of Wi-Fi it would support. The standard 802.11b and faster 802.11g are givens--but even at 11g speeds, video files can break up.
What we'd like to see: Rumors of support for 802.11n are already making the rounds. In addition to being backward-compatible with 802.11g routers and access points, the faster 802.11n standard would offer the potential for smoother video streaming, even at HD resolutions, and make the iTV a lot more future-proof.

Storage: PC-based or online?
What we know: Since the iTV doesn't appear to have any built-in storage (such as a hard drive), you'll still need a computer to act as a server for most media. That means you download your media to your PC first, then stream it to your iTV. It also means you'll need to keep that computer up and running when you want to watch anything.
What we'd like to see: Pulling media off a remote PC is the standard operating procedure for network media devices, but most of them are also able to stream some content--such as Internet radio--straight off the Web. Ideally, you'd even be able to make the purchase of a movie straight through iTV and start watching it as soon as the first few minutes buffer up on the networked PC, rather than having to run into the other room, click to download, then run back to the iTV to start watching. But that USB port on the iTV looms large: it could easily be tethered to an iPod (or an external hard drive) for PC-less storage. Even more enticing is the possibility that the iTV could eventually just pull large media files straight off the Web (the iTunes store) without the need for them to be first downloaded to the PC or Mac. Of course, you'd need superfast broadband speeds--true 5Mbps, 10Mbps, and 20Mbps throughput--become more widely available, rather than the pokey real-world 768K DSL and cable speeds that many of us currently have. (To wit: our first iTunes movie took about four hours to download.)

Pricing: à la carte or all you can eat?
What we know: The first slate of iTunes movies are currently priced from $9.99 to $12.99, though that could well change when and if additional studios enter the mix. Also, there's no telling if HD versions--if they're eventually added--would get a price premium. TV shows are generally $1.99 an episode and songs are usually just 99 cents, though some exceptions exist, such as "season passes" for certain shows and sports highlights. As we mentioned in the Resolution and aspect ratio section above, we seem to be going down a potentially problematic path where Apple could keep rolling out higher-resolution content periodically and forcing you to "buy" the same movie or TV show again and again, in order to get the best-looking image on your HDTV.
What we'd like to see: The option for a subscription model would be great. If not "all you can eat" for a flat fee, then the possibility of getting, say, all current episodes of five TV shows of your choice plus five movies a month--and maybe some music?--would be a nice start. Moreover, the ability to future-proof your purchases--getting an automatic upgrade to higher-resolution versions when and if they were released--would be another great option. The dream, of course, would be a "Netflix box"--pick any one of 70,000 movies to watch on demand, for a flat monthly fee. But given the fact that Hollywood makes billions on selling you the same content again and again, that option seems strictly relegated to the world of fantasy.

Studio support: anyone else besides Disney?
What we know: The iTunes Movie Store is launching with just a few dozen films, almost all of which are from Disney and its affiliated studio brands (so there's plenty of adult fare from Touchstone and Miramax, in addition to family-friendly movies). Apple CEO Steve Jobs is on the Disney board--thanks to the mouse's acquisition of Jobs-owned Pixar--so the entertainment giant was a natural fit for a launch partner. But other studios seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, afraid of cutting into their DVD revenue. They're also apparently scared of retaliation from Wal-Mart--the retail giant is the country's top seller of DVDs, and there's talk that it may retaliate against companies that put their movies online for fear of cutting into its DVD receipts. (The irony is that Wal-Mart supposedly loses money on DVDs, selling them below cost just to get foot traffic in the store for big ticket items.)
What we'd like to see: Obviously, the more content partners, the better. If Apple can demonstrate that its movie sales are as potentially lucrative as its TV downloads, it's a fair bet that other studios will join the fray.

As we said, the iTV definitely offers some impressive potential, but there are also enough unanswered questions and potential issues to give us pause. That brings us to the next point: iTV competitors and alternatives. There are already plenty of hardware solutions as well as online and cable services that deliver a lot of what the iTV is promising. We'll return soon to examine how they stack up against one another. In the meantime, feel free to add your comments in TalkBack.