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When Will Apple Step In?

This is the big question that the industry is asking. A year ago Microsoft made a big deal about allowing handheld devices to run movies. The result was a big, fat, white whale. Few people bought into the idea. The reason? It was largely due to content—there aren't any legal services (BitTorrent, I'm looking at you) that allow movies to be legally downloaded and run from a handheld device.

Well, maybe I speak too soon. There is one company that's allowing you to legally download movies today. Believe it or not, Apple is already doing this. iTunes, the software that revolutionized legally-owned digital music, slipped in a small upgrade in May 2005 that allowed users to watch videos through the iTunes player And Apple made no fuss about it whatsoever. But think about it—the video support may be for music videos, but what's the difference between music videos and movies?

There may well be three differences. The first is a technology issue: 2005 is being touted by Apple as the Year of High Definition video. The poster child for this is QuickTime 7. So Apple's first step is to deliver QuickTime to the Mac and PC-faithful. To a larger extent this has already been accomplished, considering that OS 10.4 "Tiger" was released with the shipping version of QuickTime 7 and a preview release of the Windows version of QuickTime 7 is available for public download (typically, a preview release means the company developing the software is extremely close to releasing the software).

The second step Apple needs to take concerns the iPod. Our trusty iPods must be able to play back video. This may be harder than you might think. The chip that runs the iPod already has the capability to play video, but it's currently turned off (Why? Well, you need to ask Mr. Jobs about that one). Obviously, Apple need to turn that function back on. But then there's the screen. Currently, watching a movie on the iPod would be akin to watching TV on a postage stamp. The next bold move the iPod needs to take is to remove the iconic Spin Wheel for more screen space.

Finally, Apple needs to figure out how to sell video through iTunes. We know it can be done. Heck, it's being done today (if you want to check this out, buy the new Cold Play album from iTunes—a free six minute movie comes with it). The problem is that as consumers, we have been trained to rent movies from the likes of Blockbuster, Netflix, and others. We also demand broad choice. Choice may be a challenge for Apple. Sony has made it clear that they do not want to sell movies through iTunes the way their music is being sold. The simple reason is greed. Apple is making too much money with iTunes and Sony believes that money should be theirs. We may end up with an Apple vs. Sony technology base that is similar to the VHS vs. Beta war of the '80s. But Apple has the iPod in its favor. This success is without debate. It will be interesting to see if that success can be extended to the lucrative world of video.

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