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Weekly Column

Blu-ray Blues: With the HD War Over, Why Aren't We Seeing Blu-ray Drives in Apple Computers?

Status: [OPEN] comments (96) | add a comment
By Robert X. Cringely

The Pulpit Poll

Would you prefer to download your HD content, rather than get it on Blu-ray discs?

Yes: Discs get scratched and lost, so download is superior.
No: I like to keep the disc as an archive and I can always lend it to my friends.

Skip this one and see results

Now that HD DVD is dead and Sony's Blu-ray has apparently won the HD media war, why aren't we seeing Blu-ray drives available as a factory option, at least, for Macintosh computers? I think Steve Jobs is deliberately holding back in a high-stakes gamble for control of HD video distribution.

Apple has been a member of the Blu-ray camp practically since its inception. And remember 2005 -- Apple's "Year of HD," when the company declared allegiance at MacWorld in the company of Sony's chairman. So where are the drives, and what does Apple have to lose by providing them or not?

There's a tiny chicken-and-egg problem here in that Apple's professional applications don't yet support Blu-ray. Maybe they'll use that as an excuse, if a lame one. Clearly Apple has had plenty of time to make it possible to burn Blu-ray discs. As the dominant hardware and software vendor to the movie industry -- an industry EAGER to jump to Blu-ray -- it would appear to be in Apple's interest to be shipping those Blu-ray drives right now. So the fact that they aren't shipping has to be a conscious decision at Apple where, as we know, most big decisions -- conscious or not -- are made by Steve Jobs.

Before we attempt to calculate what's at risk here for Apple, let's think about what the company has to gain -- or what they might THINK they have to gain – by delaying. Apple clearly sees a huge part of its future in content distribution including TV shows and movies. I can only guess that Jobs sees Blu-ray as a threat to that download business and this decision to delay Blu-ray deployment is an expensive stalling action, buying time for Apple to launch its own true HD alternative.

Yes, you can download some movies from iTunes in 720p right now, but in the surging HD market 720p is no longer good enough. The obvious standard is 1080p and right now you need Blu-ray or BitTorrent to get that. Putting on my near-futurist hat, then, I'm guessing Apple is working madly to deploy its own 1080p download solution and is hoping the world will wait for it.

Jumping to 1080p is a huge challenge for iTunes. Just look at the comparative sizes of the QuickTime HD trailers for the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Apple's own web site. The 480p trailer (that's standard definition and slightly better quality than the 640-by-480 shows most people download through iTunes now) requires 47 megabytes while the 720p file is 78 megabytes and the 1080p version requires 126 megabytes. The trailer runs just under two minutes (1:51). The three prior Indiana Jones films were 115, 118, and 126 minutes, respectively, so let's take the average and figure this new movie will come in right at two hours in length. Extrapolating from the size of the trailer, then, a good guess about the ultimate file size for the H.264 download versions of this upcoming blockbuster are 3048 megabytes, 5059 megabytes, and 8172 megabytes, respectively.

Apple faces a number of challenges offering files of this size for download, the least of which is economic. Yes, it will probably cost Apple four times as much to offer downloads of a 1080p version of a movie than its 640-by-480 version, but the market is already expecting to pay an HD premium, at least for a while, so money isn't really a major factor. The real speed bumps are the sheer impact of a true volume HD service on the Internet, itself, and the sad fact that most Macs can't even play 1080p video. They simply aren't powerful enough.

Apple isn't stupid, though, so it makes sense that they are preparing solutions to both problems. The download impact problem will probably be solved with a new iTunes infrastructure based not on Akamai but on Google. All those new Google data centers have to be for something more than just search and I have long surmised that their real intent is video distribution through peering deals with ISPs. This will be where the Apple-Google alliance finally shows itself.

Since Google is already testing their new $200 million data center near my home in South Carolina, I can only guess that this capability will be available shortly.

As for giving Macs enough grunt to play 1080p video, I explained more than a year ago that Apple has privately committed to putting an H.264 encoder/decoder chip in its entire range of machines. That specific chip began sampling last July so Apple should be able to start shipping the new Macs any time soon, certainly long before Christmas.

There is a huge opportunity here for Apple, taking a swipe at Blockbuster and NetFlix at the same time. There are tens of millions of new Macs to be sold, too, though most people will be able to participate by buying an Apple TV. Think about it. An Apple TV is cheaper than a Blu-ray player. Once you've bought the Apple TV, you're committed to the system, which is to say committed to NOT going with Blu-ray. This won't be the case with many techies, of course, but my Mom, once she buys something, sticks with it for a decade or more, and Mrs. Cringely watches a lot of movies.

So there's the upside, to grab control of the HD movie and TV download and rental infrastructure, making iTunes for video comparable to iTunes for audio in terms of market share.

But there's a downside, too, and it is bigger than one might guess. Apple is not in much danger of losing business in Hollywood. Yes, it would be convenient if TV and movie studios could avoid an additional step and simply burn Blu-ray discs out of Final Cut Pro, but that lack of utility won't be enough to drive them to a completely different platform. Steve knows he already owns Hollywood.

What Steve doesn't own and what is definitely at risk is the event video business, which is to say weddings. Here's where the numbers take an interesting turn. There are more copies of Final Cut being used today to edit wedding videos than are being used for broadcast and cable TV and movies -- a LOT more copies. Wedding videos are a $4 billion business in the U.S. alone and, unlike Hollywood, this is a business where the editing system typically also burns the DVDs that are distributed.

Wedding video makers are hot for HD, too, because it is a way to differentiate their work and charge a little more. Nearly all of them are Mac users. ALL of them want to move to HD distribution. And moving to HD is important enough that they just might switch from Apple if a compelling alternative is available.

So my advice to Apple and Steve Jobs is simple: hurry.

Jumping to a completely different subject, I learned something new this week about something old -- the origin of the term "bug," referring to a problem with computer hardware or software. The story I originally heard directly from the late Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL, was that a malfunction in the Mark II computer at Harvard in 1947 was traced to a dead moth that in its last living act had shorted out a circuit card. They taped the moth carcass in the computer logbook and history was made. Only it wasn't, as I realized this week while reading the 1932 Flying and Glider Manual published back then by Modern Mechanics magazine.

"Once you have built your sportplane," wrote the editor, identified only as Andy, "it must be test flown. If you have already taken flying lessons, you can hop it yourself -- if not, entrust the job to a competent pilot. He'll put it through its paces and find out if there are any 'bugs' that need correcting before the plane goes into active service."

So much for Grace Hopper's version of the story.

It turns out that "bug" was a common term for hardware glitches and dates back to the 19th century and possibly before. Edison used the term in a letter he wrote in 1878. This is no earthshaking news, of course, but simply reminds me how self-centered we are as an industry and there really isn't much that's truly new.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [OPEN] read all comments (96) | add a comment

Not sure your points about only techies wanting blu-ray, and 1080 being required to compete can stand together. I am definitely in the videophile category, have begun a blu-ray collection, and am fine with the 720 rez on the current iTunes offerings for watch-once download rentals. So while I agree with the notion that probably only techies will go for both, the same people that are fine with aTV downloads as their HD will probably be fine with those downloads being 720p. The kind of people who will pick on the issues (and there are some issues) will still find those issues in an 8GB H.264 download compared to a 40GB H.264 of a BD.

Brandon | Apr 14, 2008 | 9:18PM

It's really too bad then that Managed Copy isn't going to see the light of day.

A deep integration of MC into iTunes could have made a Mac-based device (or a hypothetical HTPC Mac mini-like product) THE premiere Blu-ray player.

Noah | May 02, 2008 | 5:48PM

My old G4 cannot - and my MacMini has serious issues playing back 16:9-SD content (1024x576). Only my new 8-core can play these without stutter. Without hardware assistance you can never playback HD content on any normal iMac or laptop. Apple is already working on this:

Robert observes
[They'd be giving up a sports car in Final Cut Pro, but end up effectively owning the road instead.]

[To my knowledge we haven't yet seen Apple include that H.264 video encoder/decoder chip that I have written Apple is committed to using across its entire Mac/iPod/iPhone line.]

But Apple donsn't need that - because with the new chip-maker they can program the embedded Power-PC video co-processors
to any video format they please; the only issue here are (de-facto)standards and (possible) royalties

PS: would it not be ironic to again have G4 and G5 hardware inside INTEL boxes, only this time as high-performance and low-power video engines ? This will also help Apple in the quest to differentiate their boxes from the DELL masses. You could even run OS9 on these .... (remember the CP/M cards inside the Apple2).

tom | May 23, 2008 | 1:38PM
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