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iTunes Fails the Parental Rental

My first reaction to Steve Jobs’s announcement at the Macworld Expo keynote that Apple would offer downloadable rentals was, oh, good, my wife and I can finally give up on the pretense that we actually watch movies via our Netflix subscription, rather than simply let the discs gather dust for weeks at a time. (See “iTunes Movie Rentals and Apple TV, Take 2,” 2008-01-15.) But after hearing the terms – 30 days after download to watch (an unlimited number of times), in any 24-hour window you choose – I thought, crud, we can’t use it.

As many others observed that day, watching movies all the way through is the province of the young, the single, those without kids, or those with somewhat grown children. As the father of two kids (10 months and 3 1/2 years), my wife and I typically have at most 2 to 3 hours to ourselves in evening before collapsing in bed, and watching a 2-hour movie takes 2 to 3 nights.

We are not, my wife noted, Apple’s target demographic.

For expediency, Apple accepted the odd terms imposed by the movie industry on all on-demand rentals. Movies are typically released to theaters, then on DVD, then to pay-per-view and hotel viewing, then on pay television like HBO, and – much later – on broadcast TV (usually with commercials). Digital downloads have been put into the pay-per-view category, with all the limitations and odd licensing that goes with it.

Each of those release windows is typically exclusive to maximize the profit from each segment. The time from theatrical to DVD release has become shorter and shorter over the last few years, sometimes being a matter of days instead of months. Pay-per-view release is typically about 30 days after the DVD ships to stores. (There’s a blackout window, too, when the movie goes into premium cable, where you can’t get it on pay-per-view or movie download services for sometimes as long as a year.)

This is also partly why digital downloads don’t usually have any extras. Part of that is technology; part is file and download size; and part is how downloads are licensed compared to, say, DVDs. Hotels don’t give you director’s commentary options and deleted scenes, and neither do the iTunes Store, Vudu, Amazon Unbox, or CinemaNow, to name a few.

As we know, Apple often starts an industry and then sets the terms for it. iTunes music rights initially allowed a song to be played on up to 3 authorized computers and burned to an identical playlist up to 10 times. That later changed to 5 computers and 7 copies of an identical playlist. And now the big push is for unprotected music sales, as Apple and Amazon contend for the biggest library of such songs (see “Amazon MP3 Scores DRM-Free Music: What About Apple?,” 2008-01-10).

A couple of our colleagues have discovered that “24 hours” isn’t exactly accurate, by the way, which may show some of Apple’s negotiating strength. If you pause playback on a given supported device before 24 hours is up, you can resume playing after that period, according to Mark Boszko in “Extend iTunes Movie Rentals Beyond 24 Hours,” 2008-02-18. So that’s at least not as horrible as running out of time at 23 hours 59 minutes and having to repurchase and redownload the entire movie.

(Side rant: The 30 GB and 80 GB 5th generation iPods released in 2006 and sold through the middle of 2007 aren’t capable of playing movie rentals, only the September 2007 and later models: the nano, classic, and touch, as noted in their document, “iTunes Store Movie Rental Usage Rights.” See Apple’s bird watcher’s guide to iPod models. This fact eluded not just a colleague, trying to rent “Herbie” for her 3-year-old to watch on his birthday using her 30 GB 5G iPod, but also Apple tech support, which spent an inordinate amount of time before they asked what model of iPod she had. The iPod didn’t inform
her – though one might expect firmware could be configured to do so – that she had an unsupported model.)

One can only hope that when Apple moves from its current set of roughly 150 movies for rental up to the thousands that other services offer, they’ll become the biggest such seller, and be able to negotiate better terms. I’d be happy with a 15-day or even 10-day periods if I could have 48 or 72 hours to play the movie. Or a 50-cent surcharge to get 72 hours. Or something more esoteric like “watch once through with limited rewind but unlimited pause within 30 days.” Who needs “watch unlimited times,” anyway?

Whatever. All I know is that if Apple wants to eat Netflix’s lunch and have a competitive edge against other services, just having the Apple TV and portability won’t be enough to capture the entire audience. There are millions of parents in my position, and my wife and I are just waiting for the opportunity to pull the trigger.

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