14 October 2005

Video iPod: It’s About (Quick)Time

A lot of blather about the video iPod has missed the point. No, I don’t think that many people are going to want to buy 320×240 copies of TV shows and music videos at $2 each, that they can’t even burn to a DVD. That’s not why the video iPod matters.

You’ll notice that the new video iPod is still almost exactly the same as the old iPod, because it’s still primarily a music player. That’s why people will buy it, for music. If it was supposed to be a video player, it would have a bigger screen and smaller controls; you don’t need a big rotary dial for something you’re looking right at, but you do need things like brightness, contrast, and color controls, and probably a multi-way DVD-like joystick.

The point of the whole exercise is that Apple has about 90% of the digital audio player market. Now every iPod will have video, which means everyone buying a new iPod for its music capabilities will incidentally have the ability to play videos while they’re sitting bored on a bus or plane. They wouldn’t have bought a portable video player just for that, but if their iPod incidentally does the job, they’ll probably start encoding content for it.

And when they do, it’ll be MPEG-4, based on QuickTime, with H.264 video codec and AAC audio.

Right now, downloaded video is a mess of crappy pseudo-standards. Obsolete container formats like AVI and ASF. MPEG-4 codecs like XviD and DivX, but not put into actual MPEG-4 files, because that would be too useful. Dozens of crappy encoders and tutorials teaching people to assemble bastardized cross-breeds of Ogg audio and MPEG-2 video, XviD and MP3, H.263 in AVI containers, and so on. Plus, of course, the closed proprietary crap like WMV and Real.

Now thanks to Apple’s video iPod, out of the madness we might actually settle on a single standard that’s actually a standard. Every software encoder out there is going to have a simple preset for iPod, just like some of them already have simple presets for PSP. (Which is also MPEG-4, thank goodness.)

It’s basically exactly the kind of thing Microsoft would do. Use a 90% market share in one market to dictate the formats everyone will use across another market. Except that if Microsoft did it, they’d be dictating that everyone use their proprietary Windows Media standards, whereas Apple is going to push the entire industry into the open MPEG-4 standards—which are already cross-platform, playing happily on Linux, Windows, Mac, and a bunch of DVD players too.

If there’s a clear loser here, it’s Real. No matter how much they pretend to be open, they still keep their codecs locked closed, and refuse to allow anyone to legally transcode Real formats into anything else. That approach worked for a while, making them #1 in the market, then keeping them at #2… but now they’re going to drop to #3 or lower. Nobody’s going to want content in Real format that they’ll never be able to play on their iPod or PSP. The block on Real’s audio on the iPod might have been hackable (for a while), but hacking the iPod to play Real video is going to be impossibly hard. And if I’m not allowed to turn Real media into a format I can use, why would I even bother downloading it? Or encoding to it?

Meanwhile, MPEG-4 now has a fighting chance against Windows Media. Combine the video iPod with the gradual gains Blu-Ray has been making against Microsoft’s preferred option of HD-DVD based on WMV9, and the media landscape no longer looks like it will belong to Redmond.

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