Video Killed the Radio Star

October 14, 2005

Meet the new iPod, same as the old iPod, but it is smaller and happens to play video, too. While the video capabilities are obviously a big deal, the new iPod is still mainly a music player. Video is merely a nice extra feature in the iPod, but not the core function of the device.

Video is very different from audio. It engages both sight and sound and requires greater attention. While it is possible to walk down the street listening to music or talk radio, it is considerably more difficult and dangerous to walk down the same street watching a video, so the fact that the iPod treats video as an afterthought probably isn't such a big drawback.

Unfortunately, the video features in iTunes lack the polish of the program's music management. Perhaps this is because audio is much easier to manipulate digitally. Video requires more storage space and computing power to edit and transfer medium.

iTunes started as a program to rip music from CD's and create a digital music library on a hard drive. So, when it first dropped, the iPod scratched an itch. Music loving geeks had been ripping, mixing and burning their music in iTunes and looking for a way to take that away from the computer. Only after the iPod was already a success was Apple able to start the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) and offer a way to buy new music online. With iTunes 6, iTMS also sells video downloads.

Today, geeks are recording and time-shifting video on TiVo and other digital video recorders. iTunes itself does not yet have the same ability to import already acquired video from another source. It is possible to rip a DVD, but MUCH more complicated than ripping a CD. Getting video from a DVD to iTunes takes 18 steps, while getting music from a CD takes 2 steps (insert CD, click "Import.")

Where is the integration with TiVo-To-Go? If iTunes is going to be the premier application for managing video in addition to audio, users will probably want to add previously-acquired digital video (on DVD or DVR) to downloads from the iTunes store or videoblogs.

But, maybe not. Video isn't the main point of the iPod-- it is just a feature that adds value at the margin for most users. TiVo users are watching on their televisions at home, not on their computers. The killer app for video on the iPod may be home movies. Exported directly from iMovie to the iPod, they are easy to carry around and show. For others, buying the occasional video for $2 a pop might be enough to scratch the itch.

Unfortunately, the new video section of the iTMS apparently means the demise of the old free music video section. Despite its lack of organization, it was a great way to see music videos. But now, iTunes makes it possible to download video. Labels should be especially happy, as this enables the monetization of music videos for the first time.

The video files available from the iTMS are Quicktime files encoded using the H.264 codec and encoded at a resolution of 320x240 pixels. On a 2.5", 320x240 pixel screen, videos with a resolution of 320x240 are good enough.

On a larger screen, though, 320x240 isn't much. Artifacts become noticeable. On a larger screen, 320x240 video, even in the spectacular H.264 codec, can not compare to the higher-resolution files available on P2P. Last season, I caught up on episodes of Lost that I missed by downloading them. The files I found were encoded at a resolution of 608x336 using the XviD codec (with a file size of about 350 MB). At full-screen on a 12" laptop or played through an iBook on a 27" television, these look really nice. In fact, the downloads look better than my analog cable feed, since the P2P files came from high-definition sources. Of course, the iTMS videos have the advantage of much smaller file size.

For music, the iTMS works well even without an iPod. Not only is it more convenient than than searching for the same songs on P2P, but the quality is generally higher than downloads from P2P, as the iTMS generally uses the highest-quality transfers available of files from master recordings. 128kbps AAC is good enough for most consumer-level headphones and speakers. All but audiophiles will be happy with the artifact-free files.

Personally, I don't mind that the iTunes Music Store files are encumbered with DRM, until I attempt to do something that the DRM will not allow. I was going to post a short excerpt of an iTMS video along with an excerpt of a video recorded on my ReplayTV and one downloaded from P2P. While it is possible to cut and paste a short clip from an iTMS video, Quicktime Pro will not allow one to save that short clip in a file.

While Windows Media Center advocates and inattentive reviewers will gripe that the iPod can only play video from the iTunes store, the new iPod can play video in the open MP4 standard. Only the downloads from the iTMS involve proprietary DRM.

Even without owning a video iPod, downloading video from the iTMS is a nice option (and would be a much better option if the files looked nicer than heavily-played VHS tape.) This could solve a problem I wrote about just over a year ago: the lack of a market for old television programming that cannot justify a release on DVD: Market Failure on the Long Tail. It took a decent amount of effort to find torrent downloads of early Amazing Race seasons. (This specific problem was solved last week, with the release of TAR classic on DVD, but iTMS provides a way to solve the general problem.

DVD releases of full seasons of TV series have been quite successful. But for every Lost or The Simpsons, there is some other series that will not justify a DVD release. For those programs with marginal interest, there may be enough to make a profit from a digitally distributed release through iTunes. While no one in their right minds would release a DVD set of Mark Cuban's reality TV show, The Benefactor, there might be enough people who would be interested in downloading an episode. Cuban thinks that bringing television to iTunes not only makes a lot of sense, but completely changes the economic model for television: How Bob Iger Saved Network TV

Cuban also thinks that as the video store develops, Apple will address the concerns about video quality:

I expect that either a 2nd tier of pricing will come along from Apple for full screen quality that is designed to play on a TV rather than an IPod or half screen on a Laptop or PC, as competitors compete by enabling higher quality and full screen playback. All of which will further expand the market.

I look forward to the first version of iTunes that has serious video library features. For now, the big winner with iTunes 6 and the video-playing iPod is Rocketboom. Rocketboom is a wonderful videoblog that distributes free short video content every weekday. iTunes automatically downloads each vlog entry and syncs to the iPod (via RSS and the podcast features introduced over the summer in iTunes 4.9.) Video that fits in a commute, doesn't rely on high resolution or high definition, and doesn't cost anything to watch is the killer app for the iPod. J.D. Lasica agrees: "Not one word about what's really going to drive sales of the video iPod: not weeks-old 52-minute episodes of "Desperate Housewives" for $1.99 a download -- but free video. Professional-looking short-form video produced by people like you and me."
Video iPod: Where's discussion of free video?

The new video iPod does not redefine the portable media player like the original iPod. Instead, it is an evolutionary development that may open the doors to lots more video that can be ripped, mixed and 'Podded. I, for one, welcome our new media overlords.

Posted by Andrew Raff at October 14, 2005 06:11 PM
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Are you a descendant of either Malcolm or Ray Raff, originally from northern New Jersey? My father, Albert Raff, is their cousin.
Your picture bears a remarkable resemblance to my brother, Ernie Raff, who died in 1982 at the age of 23, in a plane crash.
I'm a pro dancer, now semi-retired and professing the history of percussive jazz dance at Mt Holyoke College, and Roger Williams U.
Just moved to Upton MA from Brookline. No need to answer if this doesn't interest or involve you.

Posted by: Pamela Raff on October 21, 2005 05:24 PM
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