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Apple's Non-Invention of the Movie Download

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 19, 2006 --  

Apple didn't invent the movie download. The company's entry into the market, however, promises to expand movie availability and improve ease of use.

If you are gullible enough to believe the hype emanating from the mouth of Steve Jobs, you might think Apple Computer recently invented the video download. With the addition of television and movie features to the iPod music player and the iTunes download service, the company claims to be leading a cutting edge revolution in the way people watch video content -- much the same way as Apple led the revolution in portable music and graphical user interfaces for computers.

Though you'd never know it by reading press accounts, Apple's credit for innovation on all these counts is utter nonsense. Companies such as Archos were selling video-capable music players for several years before Apple got into the game, just as a company called Cinemanow has long been selling movie downloads. Without a doubt, Apple is simply copying the video download innovation of others, just as it did years before with the graphical user interface and the portable music player.

But while Apple is weak on innovation, it excels brilliantly when it comes to marketing and consumer-oriented design. Given the state of the video download industry, Apple's entry into the market is long overdue.

Take for instance, the pre-Apple state of affairs for portable video downloads. Cinemanow and Movielink have long offered television shows and movie downloads for portable video players, and Amazon has recently joined them with its Unbox online store. All these online stores use a Microsoft-based Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme, meaning that the videos can only be played using Microsoft-compatible video player software -- either on a PC or on a portable device -- that has the keys to unlock the video and enforce its visibility to only the person who paid for it.

The trouble with this approach is that the same locks that prevent unauthorized copying can also block a legitimate purchaser from seeing a movie. Microsoft has tried to calm the worries of skittish shoppers by unveiling a "Plays for Sure" logo. But this promise is about as hollow as Steve Jobs' claims of innovation. To quote Amazon's Unbox website, "If your device is Plays for Sure compliant it may work, but we cannot guarantee [it.]" Yeah, that's reassuring.

After several positive experiences downloading movies from Cinemanow and Movielink for playback on a PC, I decided last fall to try renting one for play on my Microsoft "Plays for Sure" portable Archos player. This attempt ended in dismal failure. A cryptic error message showed up while transferring the video to the handheld unit. I didn't have the patience to try to get my $3.99 rental fee back, and I won't be trying it again soon.

Fixing this clunky and error-prone system is a great place for Apple to play a constructive role. Apple is great at simplifying technology so that it's easy for consumers to use. Unfortunately, Apple accomplishes this by maintaining a stranglehold. The DRM system used by Apple is completely incompatible with that used by Microsoft, and unlike Microsoft, Apple refuses to share its system with others.

Only portable players and set top boxes built by Apple can play music and videos purchased from Apple's iTunes service. And Apple refuses to let anybody else sell music and videos that use its DRM scheme. While its behavior is obnoxious and monopolistic, Apple can still benefit consumers by setting a higher standard that its less monopolistic competitors will be forced to match.

The other place where Apple can play a constructive role is in cajoling studios to release their content for sale by download. Due to the pig-headed refusal of studios to license their films, the vast majority of titles commonly found in video stores are unavailable for download. Cinemanow, the most established company in the business, offers only about 4,000 video titles for purchase or rental1, far exceeding both Movielink's 2,000 titles 2, and Amazon's 2,000 titles3. Compare these numbers, however, with the selection of over 60,000 DVDs that Blockbuster5 and Netflix6claim to rent via snail mail.

Apple's movie download selection has started off extremely slowly -- only 70 titles from various Disney-owned studios were available at launch.4 But if Apple's experience selling music and television video downloads is any measure, its presence in the market will be a real catalyst for convincing studios to put more movies on the download market -- for both Apple and other vendors.

In the end, it doesn't really matter that Apple's entry into the movie download business doesn't amount to a technical invention. As long as the company generates enough hype to advance the market for all players, the world of movie downloads will be a much better place. So go ahead, believe that Apple invented the video download. So long as it leads to better selection and ease of use, everyone will benefit from the fallacy.

Related Web Columns:

Obnoxious Whims
The Fighting Power of Underground Video
, May 24, 2005

Just Around the Corner
The Belated Arrival of Video-on-Demand
, June 25, 2002


1. Cinemanow, About Cinemanow, as posted on September 18, 2006

2. Movielink, 2480 titles shown on website as of September 18, 2006

3. Amazon Unbox, Search for all videos shows 2193 as of September 18, 2006

4. Blockbuster, "Over 60,000" titles available as posted on website on September 18, 2006

5. Netflix, "Over 65,000" titles available as posted on website on September 18, 2006

6. Washington Post, Movie Downloads Remain a Production Worth Skipping, September 17, 2006