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Weekly Column

The Great Apple Video Encoder Attack of 2007: Cupertino plans to add H.264 hardware support to its entire line. Also, Snapster lives!

Status: [CLOSED] comments (125)
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Maybe you have wondered, as I have, why it takes a pretty robust notebook computer to play DVD videos, while Wal-Mart will sell you a perfectly capable progressive-scan DVD player from Philips for $38? In general, the dedicated DVD player is not only a lot cheaper, it works better, too, and the simple reason is because it decodes the DVD's MPEG-2 video stream in hardware, rather than in software. They won't run a spreadsheet, true, but DVD players are brilliant at doing what they are designed to do over and over again. And if the expedient here is a $7 MPEG-2 decoder chip, it's a wonder why such chips didn't appear long ago in PCs.

Well they are about to, after a fashion.

I'm not sure of the real reason why we haven't seen widespread video-decoding hardware in personal computers, which have largely used decoding software, instead. Maybe the reason is economic (save the $7) or maybe it is political (Microsoft or maybe Apple are for some reason opposed to hardware decoding). But like a lot of real reasons, I think it probably comes down to hubris and the simple fact that by decoding video in software, road warriors have another incentive to buy a more expensive -- and more powerful -- computer.

Now comes the rumor I have heard, that I believe to be a fact, that has simply yet to be confirmed. I have heard that Apple plans to add hardware video decoding to ALL of its new computers beginning fairly soon, certainly this year.

Why Apple would do this is fairly clear to me, but first let's clarify what I mean by hardware video decoding, because it isn't implicitly the MPEG-2 format used in present-day DVDs. I'm not saying Apple's video-decoder chip won't also decode MPEG-2 (it may or may not -- I simply don't know), but the chip's primary codec is H.264, which is at the heart of both Apple's QuickTime software and its iTunes video downloading service.

WHY Apple would add H.264 video-decoding hardware to its entire line of PCs comes down to supporting iTunes and any similar video distribution efforts Apple may spring on us. By going with a chip, Apple ensures the same base performance level from every machine it sells, from the lowliest Mac Mini right up to the mightiest four-core Mac Pro. Up until now it took a multi-core machine with a lot of memory to support real 1080p (HDTV) decoding, but soon you'll be able to do that easily on a Mac Mini while leaving the main CPU to handle other chores like networking, running the graphical user interface, or perhaps integrating in real time a variety of video ad streams.

Apple's new policy, if true, will turn on its head the whole notion of forcing users upmarket if they want better video support. THE POLICY WILL COST APPLE MONEY, not just for the video chip, but also for the lost sales of higher performance machines.

So what's in it for Apple? Potentially a lot, because the chip Apple has chosen doesn't cost $7, it costs more like $50, and it doesn't just do hardware H.264 decoding, it does hardware H.264 ENCODING, too.

This will change everything. Soon even the lowliest Mac will be able to effortlessly record in background one or more video signals while the user runs TurboTax on the screen. Macs will become superb DVR machines with TiVo-like functionality yet smaller file sizes than any TiVo box could ever produce. In a YouTube world, the new Macs will be a boon to user-produced video, which will, in turn, promote the H.264 standard. By being able to encode in real time, the new Macs will have that American Idol clip up and running faster than could be done on almost any other machine. Add in Slingbox-like capability to throw your home cable signal around the world and it gets even better. Add faster video performance to the already best-of-league iChat audio/video chat client, and every new Mac becomes a webcam or a video phone.

It's an aggressive play that fits perfectly with Apple's traditional role as the hardware platform of choice for new media development. And I am sure the company will have at least one new service or application that will uniquely support this new chip upon which Apple is placing a $500+ million bet.

Remember, you read it here first.

Something else you read here first, well, years ago, appears to be finally coming to fruition. Maybe you remember Snapster, my harebrained scheme from back in 2003 to create a company to buy up one copy of every music CD (of course it would work for video DVDs, too) and share them using a group ownership model not unlike fractional ownership of business jets. The record companies would hate it, I predicted, since they might sell just one copy of any given CD, but it would be a great -- and nominally legal -- business, or so I thought at the time.

Snapster and the bug-fix version Snapster 2.0 got a huge reader response, and several people even vowed to build the darned thing, which I would never have done, coward that I am. Well four years later, something darned close to Snapster is finally entering beta testing and might just work, which is to say generate legal bills for its developer.

The new service is called NetTunes (it's in this week's links) and was built, according to lead developer Robert Stromberg, by combining my ideas with his. The major difference between NetTunes and Snapster is that while Snapster was based on joint ownership of the music, NetTunes is based on a music-lending model.

There is nothing in U.S. copyright law that says you can't lend your DVD or CD to a friend or neighbor to watch or listen to. They aren't supposed to copy it, of course, but the concept doesn't preclude multiple physical copies (backups are allowed, remember, as is redeployment on other media like tapes or iPods) so much as multiple simultaneous USES of the content. So if you lend your copy of Led Zeppelin IV to some buddy with a hot date, you'd better not play it that evening at your home, that is unless you bought a second physical copy of the record or CD.

NetTunes virtualizes the whole music-lending function. You join the service, then either upload your music just like to any other music locker service, or you just register the albums and songs you own and link to them through NetTunes in much the same way that you did in the pirate heyday of Napster, the original P2P music-sharing sensation.

If you've registered your copy of Led Zeppelin IV and some other member wants to play Side A (the money side, believe me), here's what happens, according to Stromberg:

"When a user wants to share a music file, the player application encrypts it on the user's computer and makes one more copy of it available for use by all of the users in the system. It can then only be played with the NetTunes player, until the user decides to un-share it. When a user wants to play a song, the player checks with the NetTunes service to see if any copies are available at that time. If one is, the "key" is checked out to that user for the duration of the song, and no other user can use that copy. Users can upload the shared songs to the NetTunes service, where they can be downloaded and played by other users."

It will be interesting to see how NetTunes fares. From a technical standpoint I see no huge problems with it, though, of course, the music labels will hate NetTunes, sending lawyers in suicide attacks whether they have a case or not. I hope it succeeds, frankly, because I think of NetTunes as my baby, even if I didn't have either the brains or the guts to make it happen, myself.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (125)

Um, I know that I'm late to the party here, but MP3.com used to have such a service, that allowed you to use their software to register your music with them, and then you could play it from the road through your account. As I recall, they did not withstand copyright scrutiny, and were shut down.

Nick | Mar 19, 2007 | 5:03PM

Yo, Otis. _YOU_ might want to RTFA.

"So what's in it for Apple? Potentially a lot, because the chip Apple has chosen doesn't cost $7, it costs more like $50, and it doesn't just do hardware H.264 decoding, it does hardware H.264 ENCODING, too."

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