Is Apple about to steal a march on mobile video competitors?

Media Wonk was away over the Memorial Day weekend so I’m just catching up on some stories that broke last week. One that didn’t seem to get the attention it merited was Kwame Jones’ scoop on Open Salon that Apple appears to be readying a plan to allow movie and TV downloads directly to iPhones and iPod Touches without their first having to stop first at a desktop or laptop hard drive. Jones posted some screen shots provided by a “geeky friend” who stumbled on links to “iTunes Movies” and “iTunes TV” crawling across the top of a new ad-supported iPhone app. The screen shots captured menu and ordering screens for movies and TV shows broken out by genre, season and other features.

Ars Technica expressed some skepticism about “the story behind this one,” declaring it “highly unlikely that Apple would run ads for such a feature through a network like AdMob,” or “that Apple would create an ad like that this far in advance, knowing that non-Apple-employees have a high likelihood of seeing it.”

Maybe so, but the idea that Apple would be working on such an application strikes me as highly likely. Particularly so in light of the very-much confirmed news of Apple’s recently granted patent for a wireless download kiosk that can deliver movies and TV shows directly to handheld devices without their first having to stop at a desktop or laptop hard drive. Clearly, Apple is planning a fairly major move into portable video based on wireless delivery and built around kiosks that can be placed in airports, retail outlets and other types of high-traffic locations.

That strikes me as a bigger deal than simply a “nice feature” to have on an iPhone, as ars described it. Given the ongoing–and probably irreversible–decline in the DVD business, portable video may be the studios’ best hope a Next Big Thing that could replace some of that lost DVD revenue. The threshold challenge for viable portable video business, however, is how to get the content onto the device. There are four basic ways to accomplish that, each of which has problems:

  1. You can rip content from a DVD to a portable device. But that requires circumventing the copy protection on the discs, which is illegal. The studios and IT companies have been working on a system for making authorized “managed copies” of DVD for the better part of five years but have so far failed to agree on a protocol. That’s led some studios to embrace the idea of including a pre-ripped “Digital Copy” of a movie with the DVD but that approach has already led to incompatibility among formats and market fragmentation and in any case requires planning a preparation on the part of the consumer, essentially foreclosing impulse transactions.
  2. You can rely on some sort of prerecorded packaged media to deliver the content, as Sony tried to do with UMD for the PSP, but that requires recreating the inefficiencies of the current retail model.
  3. You can side-load content from a PC or other acquisition device to a portable device using either a direct physical connection or some sort of portable memory device, such as an SD card or a thumb drive, as MOD Systems (with the backing of Toshiba and NCR) has tried to roll out (so far without success). That inevitably raises questions of content security, however, and requires consumers to carry around the appropriate media for acquiring or playing back content.
  4. You can deliver the content directly to the device wirelessly. Big files such as movies, however, would require long download times and would crush most consumers’ wireless data plans, not to mention their carriers’ networks.

apple-kiosk1Apple, however, seems to have found another way. According to the description in its patent filing, its kiosks establish what it calls a “virtual physical connection” with compatible wireless devices that delivers the content without taxing the user’s personal wireless data service or where wireless service may not otherwise be available.

As important, by doing it through iTunes Apple probably already has all or most of the rights it needs for the service from the major studios, putting it miles ahead of potential competitors (MOD Systems, for instance, has only secured rights from Warner Bros. and Paramount).

In short, Apple may be close to doing for portable video just what it did for digital music: Providing  an elegant, simple-to-use (and proprietary) hardware/software/human interface that makes Apple the default option for portable video consumers and program suppliers. And with potentially the same effect on competition and studio margins.

Quite a coup if Apple could pull it off. Again. — PS