Sean Alexander

Thoughts are actions in rehearsal has an interesting article on Apple’s new support of “Reverse syncing” of content with the iTunes 7 release yesterday:

Today, Apple released iTunes 7.0, among other things. In earlier versions of iTunes, Apple did its best to prevent users from being able to copy music from an iPod back to a desktop computer. Now, Apple has changed course and is marketing “Reverse Syncing” as a new feature of iTunes 7.

But there is one giant catch:

1. Music and media not purchased from the iTunes store only syncs one way, from your computer to your iPod.

This is uninnovation in its most frustrating form. It’s easy to spot and avoid drm-saturated junk, but these kinds of subtle limitations in an otherwise great product frustrate users and drive them to alternative applications. How about trusting the user enough to let them get at their own files without these childish restrictions?

WMP11 added reverse file transfer support back in March which works with purchased, and clear content. (It’s also had album art matching in WMP9, dramatically improved in WMP11). I think the author is being a bit overzealous however in his claim of “uninnovation”- it’s always been easy to transfer music off your iPod, it’s just a little hidden. Here it’s a little less hidden.

I’ve seen lots of chatter on iTV – Apple’s Media Center Extender-esque device for streaming video to the living room. It feels like we’ve been here before. Long Zheng at has a good recap of the relative strengths and weaknesses of products in this space. It seems a bit odd that Apple would break from long-time tradition and give a “sneak preview” of a product that won’t be available for at least Q1 ’07, particularly when they could have held the announce to availability around MacWorld in January. It’s clear they had to do this to try and spur purchase of movies from their new store- with no rental model, people just don’t want to buy movies to watch on their portable players. Tell them they’ll be able to play it in other places as well around the home and their likelihood of purchase is higher. It’s the battle of cognitive dissonance – buyer’s remorse. After all, you’re already dealing with the psychological barrier in that the user is buying an intangible good, something without physical form that perceptually has less value than physical media such as DVDs. But… you’re going to charge about the same as a physical DVD. Without the Bonus DVD content. Oh and the 640×480 video quality people are downloading is going to be between VHS and DVD quality (which offers 720x480p). Never mind that it will be potentially less for letterboxed content since the new iPod doesn’t support 16:9 (widescreen) display. In the time it will take most customers to download one of these movies, I could have gone to the store, bought the DVD, popcorn, a 6-pack of Coke, dinner, come home, cooked dinner, and be ready to watch. In a rental model, all of these issues can be forgiven for immediate gratification and a lower price, as witnessed by the popularity of Video On Demand and InDemand services.

The challenges in streaming TV from the PC aren’t just the hypothesized need for higher speed wireless (802.11n) which should be provisionally approved in early 2007. This might be delaying their launch, but streaming 640×480 video across the home has been possible with Media Center Extender for just about two years now. A challenge is going to be convincing consumers to buy and set up yet another single-purpose device in the living room, another remote, another input on the TV for this thing.

Today, you can get an Xbox 360 that includes Media Center Extender at no additional cost. Over 16 million Media Center customers can use this today, no additional charge. Even if you don’t have a TV tuner in your PC, you can connect a USB tuner and record TV or HDTV (OTA today, Digital Cable with equipped PCs with Vista). No additional fees. As announced at CES last year, multiple HDTV manufacturers are putting Media Center extender into their designs, something that costs less than a night at the movies to implement.

As for another box in the living room, the Xbox 360 does HD gaming, DVD/HD-DVD Playback, Music, Photos, Video, TV/HDTV playback, runs rich media apps from a multitude of providers, and delivers an increasing amount of media content via Xbox Live, including HD. And it’s going to get significantly better with Windows Vista Premium’s Media Center features – automatically updating your Xbox 360 to support in the family room with the same level of animation and experience.

Either way, a saying comes to mind: “A rising tide raises all boats” and for that I welcome Apple’s foray. But if Apple’s iTV costs the same as an Xbox, offers nothing more than a “simplified remote” and fewer mainstream features which really makes more sense when competing for consumer dollars outside the Job’s faithful? With Sony and Nintendo’s Wii also vying for that same space, it’s about to get a bit more crowded. Or perhaps just noisy. So begins the “Great Family Room Battle of 2007”.

(Disclaimer: I used to work on Media Center, but haven’t for over a year, and speak only for myself.)

5 thoughts on “Of ITunes 7, User Trust, and iTV

  1. d49 says:

    "but these kinds of subtle limitations in an otherwise great product frustrate users and drive them to alternative applications"

    Much like lack of podcast integration in WMP11 is driving me back towards itunes. 🙂

  2. Ahh yes. Perhaps you want to wait until the bugs are worked out? Just look at or Engadget reports of issues. Or Wil Wheaton. I’m going to wait myself 😉

  3. d49 says:

    Are talking about iTunes 7 (which appears to be breaking lots of things) or WMP 11 future features ? 🙂

  4. jeff says:

    Describing 640×480 video as betwen VHS and DVD is misleading. VHS is more like 320×240 quality.

    I doubt many people could tell the difference between 720×480 video vs. 640×480. It’s 90% of DVD quality. Both are resampled quite a bit if your monitor resolution is above 640×480 (which I’m betting money it is). Perceptually, this is negligible.

  5. sportsunit says:

    I’d rather 720 x 480. I don’t want these videos stretched horizontally on my screen. Bad enough they have to be uprezed to match the 1080p resolution of my LCD. iTV vs. 360 is just a really bad, lopsided matchup. $299 for iTV or $299 for 360 core. It’s a no-brainer.

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