iTunes / AppleTV movie rentals: a user point of view

At MacWorld in January 2008, Apple announced the shift from purchasing videos through iTunes to renting them (from the US store for now, with other countries to certainly follow). At the same time, they introduced updates to the software for iPods, iPhones and the Apple TV to make it all work together. And the other big news was the introduction of a digital copy on certain DVDs you can buy in stores (in North America). At about the same time, the “war” between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray is (already? / finally?) coming to an end with the solution backed by Sony in the lead. Having (almost) all the devices that form the iTunes ecosystem, I needed to give it a try.

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the rules related to renting movies… Looking at how I normally watch movies (I do subscribe to Zip.ca, the Canadian equivalent to Netflix), I’ve rarely started watching a movie that I got through the mail more than two weeks after receiving it, and I don’t recall having once stopped watching the movie before the end of it to continue a few days later. Yes, being able to watch movies for 72 hours after pressing the play button the first time. But as I haven’t gotten used to the Tivo time-shifting experience as of yet, I don’t really mind the 30 days / 24 hours rule. Yes I know, I will certainly regret writing this in the future…

After updating my version of iTunes and the software on my iPhone (I was actually traveling with a trans-atlantic flight the next day), I rented a movie to give it a try (The Simpsons) and enjoyed watching that movie on my hand-held device while being stuck in economy class. Overall, the quality and experience was great, except that in the middle of the movie, I suddenly get an advertisement message for something!!! That destroyed my whole experience and, while being as unobtrusive as possible, is unacceptable in my mind.Update 9 July 2008: The “advertisement” I saw was actually part of the movie. Thank you Geoff for pointing this misunderstanding out to me 😉

The other thing related to the new media offering from Apple is the fact that some DVDs you can buy (at least in the USA and Canada, yes, in Canada!) will also include a digital copy. While not specifically for iTunes (it also works with Windows Media Player’s PlayForSure, but not with the Zune), the idea is very intriguing… the only DVD I could find at this stage with the digital copy (another cartoon movie: Family Guy – Blue Harvest) actually includes two discs in the case, plus a little flyer with instructions for the digital copy. This card also include a unique serial number. When you insert the second disk in your computer drive, iTunes detects it and asks for the unique number on the card to unlock your very own digital copy of that movie. Type in the code, and then something strange happens. Instead of copying the movie from the disk and unlocking it over the network (strange I know, I don’t even complain about the fact that there is DRM all over this), iTunes actually starts downloading the movie! I get a second disk in the DVD case, and the only thing that is included on it is information for the media player to display a page on the store to start downloading the movie for “free”… In summary, these DVDs don’t implement and evolution of the DRM used by Microsoft or Apple, they simply link back to the normal workflow and require you to download the movie in electronic format… Handbrake still sounds very appealing for a digital backup of your purchased DVDs with this type of approach from the movie studios.

The last change regarding the media offering from the makers of the iPod, the new Apple TV experience, is great. Version 2.0 of the software installed seamlessly on my device, and it then was very easy to find a movie to rent, click a button and watch the movie within a few minutes of deciding what to watch. I understand that the HD version of the movie is not 1080p, but the quality on my HD-TV was really good. And the good news, I didn’t get any add on the movie I rented to try the Apple TV experience out (Michael Clayton). What I really enjoyed is the fact that from the moment I decided what to watch and the point where the movie actually started, only a few minutes where required.

The Apple TV experience is really seamless… once the size of the Interweb tubes grows a little more (Bell, Rogers, take this as a strong request from my side) and the quality of HD rentals move to true 1080p, the monthly fee for Zip.ca will be hard to justify. I don’t see myself stopping buying Blu-Ray movies that I want to see more than once for the foreseeable future (I stopped buying DVDs as a rule since I got the Playstation 3 last year). But for those movies that I just want to see once, getting it directly streamed to your TV is a seamless experience that I look forward to enjoy again. The one thing missing is as following: after watching the movie, why not offer me a 48 hour window to convert my rental into a purchase for an extra $9.95? As the whole thing has already been downloaded once, that shouldn’t be to difficult from a technology perspective… but then again, DRM and the studios might be the biggest reason that will prevent this from happening.

In summary, while there is still room for improvement in many aspects, this offering around movies from Apple is a great first start. Just start offering these outside of the USA, and get rid of this @$#%#*! DRM and I will be a very happy camper.

On the subject of DRM going away, when can I get DRM free music from all the major in addition to EMI outside of the USA??? Currently, the only option is Amazon.com if you have a US credit card. When will I get all the music DRM free on iTunes, wherever I am?

2 thoughts on “iTunes / AppleTV movie rentals: a user point of view”

  1. There was an advertisement in the middle of a movie you rented? Really? That doesn’t sound good at all. If there is some advertisement, I would expect it to be only at the beginning or at the end.

    Alex

  2. Yes, there was some text about an upcoming show on Fox (if I recall) in the black bar below the movie… my scale on the iPhone changed from zoomed to full view so that I could see it. It might just be part of the movie itself… never know. I will keep an eye out on future rentals and let you know if I see anything else.

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