Monday, July 18, 2005

What about the (i)Tunes, man?

In a report from today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Apple has recently held discussions with major recording companies, seeking to license music videos to sell through its iTunes Music Store.

Like many people who follow digital content distribution, I’ve suspected that iTunes, which just crossed the half-billion mark for track downloads, exists to push sales of iPods, which have produced over $1 billion in quarterly revenue for Apple since Q4 2004. And vice-versa. This move certainly seems designed to push further into the stratosphere sales of iPods.

On the surface, this venture would portend no major technology hurdle, as iTunes is built on QuickTime and its last two versions have featured video playback. Similarly, iPods are now equipped with color screens to show album art, photos, etc.

But I am deeply skeptical of the iPod’s chances as a video playback device, for the following reasons:

1. Battery life. If you keep the backlight off, play low bit-rate songs (128 kbps), don’t shuffle, don’t flip back to memory – basically, hit play and don’t touch the thing again – you might, might get 12 hours’ life out of a brand-new iPod battery. Last month, Apple had to settle a class action lawsuit related to battery failures of its earlier iPod models. Now they're going to launch an iPod with the battery capacity to play hours and hours of video content? Doubtful.

2. Screen size. As anyone in the mobile phone industry will attest, the public’s presumed appetite for video content on 2 inch by 2 inch screens is looking more and more like a marketing myth. There’s only a handful of types of content that people are willing to squint at a handheld device for longer than two seconds to consume. Maps, directions, events in my area? Yes. Movie trailers and music videos? Not that I watch either, but, if I did, why wouldn’t I do so on the larger screen that accompanies the device on which I downloaded such content to begin with?

3. Functionality. Sorta overlaps with #2, but think about what you do with an iPod. You shop, tap away on your laptop, exercise, drive, powerwalk through airports and train stations and a whole lot of other activities to which listening to your iPod takes a back seat in terms of being your primary focus.

Indeed, video seems like a questionable offering for a service called iTunes. So, if it’s inconsistent with the name of the service and it isn’t going to sell more iPods, why is Apple interested in it? Because large numbers of people have already shown that they want it so bad that they’re willing to download it illegally, as they did with music. And, as it did with music, Apple wants to show video content owners that it can be every bit the vigilant technology steward of intellectual property that it has been for audio content owners.

Some may scoff that Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management coding has been easily cracked by software such as PlayFair, Hymn (which succeeded PlayFair following a round of cease-and-desist letters from Apple’s lawyers), DeDRMS and FairKeys. But the relatively small, but savvy cohort that uses such programs hasn’t come close to neutralizing Apple’s prowess at monetizing once-free digitally distributed content.

So, once again, Apple is looking to the lawsuits for its next market and is now locking in on the crowd that currently must download The Matrix or the last season of 24, The Simpsons, etc. on BitTorrent.

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