There seems to be a big kafuffle about downloadable movies lately. People have been looking at the latest range of PVR/DVR devices (hard-disk-based video recorders) and figuring out that a nice fat broadband pipe could negate the need for a trip to the video shop. That’s all very well, and I’m all for it, but there are lots of details that need to be sorted out before we have an iTunes Movie Store.

At the moment, the technically savvy can fairly easily (though quite slowly) download most new Hollywood blockbusters using the shady services of LimeWire or BitTorrent. They range from bloke-in-the-pub-quality to just as good as the real thing. But like MP3 downloads before it, movie downloads are inconvenient, illegal, and generally only for the very patient and technically savvy user. At the moment this interests a very small slice of the Mac market. But as more people are using broadband (my mum just signed up for a 1Mbit pipe), the potential market will grow.

Once a market exists, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that somebody will find a way of doing it. It will be a long struggle to get all the mainstream and independent movie studios working together to offer this kind of service. But the iTunes Music Store is a perfect model for how it should work. There just needs to be some ground work before this will be viable, and somebody, maybe Apple, should be working
on it right now.

So what do we, the consumers, want from the Hollywood studios? Many of us have already made the transition away from tape, what will make us move again to hard disk rather than DVD?

Extras, schmextras
One of the ways the studios sold us on the idea of DVD was adding all those extras. Now if we get a DVD that has less than an hour of bloopers, behind-the-scenes action and stunts, we feel ripped off. So any new way of buying movies needs to offer at least those extras, and maybe more. The other thing that a new format must offer is security. DVD encryption has been cracked, and now anybody can rip a DVD to hard disk (just Google “Mac DVD backup”). For Hollywood to trust the computer industry to go near its movies again, it needs to be convinced the movies will be safe from piracy.

While it’s debateable that anything is entirely pirate-proof, Apple has done well with the iTMS. Yes, technically it has been cracked, but nobody is making a big fuss about it. It should be easy enough to make movies at least that secure.

One hurdle, though, is even if you make something as secure as iTMS content, the pure digital output from your Mac is still recordable. The same is true of iTunes, but few people can be bothered. If it’s easy and cheap enough to pay for the real thing, why bother cheating?

What’s needed is a new format of downloadable, secure, fully featured DVD type content that will play on a certain number of devices. In the same way that iTMS music will play on only three Macs, video content should play on only three devices. The big question is, what should those devices be?

I can’t see Hollywood letting Apple be the guardian of all its movies. The music industry is edgy with Apple being the main provider of secure music – but it’s better than being without any legitimate source of legal music, or movies. If there’s no legal source, people will just find more sophisticated means of pirating.

Apple needs to support and perhaps build a device that is capable of playing movies to a TV in a secure file format. But unlike the iPod, it won’t be able to monopolize the hardware. People are already uncomfortable with Apple owning 60 per cent of the MP3 hardware market. Remember, not everybody has an iPod – but if Apple had a 60 per cent slice of the media player pie, that’s potentially a lot more than 60 per cent of the MP3-only market.

If Apple isn’t going to be allowed to own the movie market in the same way as it (for the moment) appears to own the music one, then it might not make sense for Apple to try. But if the company set the standard high enough, it could mean that at least we won’t have to look at dreadful Windows Media devices and all that goes with them.

It wouldn’t take so much work for Apple because it already has an infrastructure to do an almost identical job. The only problem is the hardware to play back the movies. It can’t be a Mac, it must be cross platform, and it needs to be secure and able to handle whatever kind of encryption is used for the movie and extra content.

Currently there are a number of media players, such as EyeHome, SqueezeBox, AudioTron and others. None of them can play iTunes Music Store purchases because Apple wont let any manufacturer licence their encryption. This situation must change, but Apple is holding out for as long as possible. Once it lets go of the crown jewels of music, it might get a slice of the bigger Hollywood pie. MW