New iTunes LP and Extras built using TuneKit Framework, aimed at Apple TV
September 14th, 2009
Daniel Eran Dilger
iTunes 9 introduced two identical formats for adding new bonus content to existing music and movie downloads: iTunes LP for music albums and iTunes Extras for select movies. The availability of iPhone apps asks: why? The answer appears to be Apple TV.
The iPhone App Store offers the potential for Apple to convert standard music and movie downloads that play anywhere into closed binaries that only play on the iPhone and iPod touch. So what is Apple doing releasing iTunes LP and Extras as web-based content that doesn’t even play on the iPhone?
Try this on for size
For a hint at why iTunes LPs and movie Extras weren’t targeted at the App Store, look at the native size of the new bonus content: it’s 1280×720. That obviously isn’t aimed at mobile devices at all, even if you could scale it down without any problem. It’s also not optimized for the majority of systems that can actually play it at the moment.
Apple’s popular 13“ MacBook delivers a 1280×800 resolution, but in order to play iTunes Extra content within the iTunes window with the Dock and menu bar present, it has to scale it down. That’s not really a problem; the new bonus content plays within whatever iTunes window size you want without a hitch. iTunes can also play the content full screen, taking full advantage of a 13” resolution.
But clearly, Apple targeted the bonus content to play natively at an HDTV resolution, and more precisely, the native resolution of Apple TV, a product that desperately needs a purpose. Recall that this is the box Steve Jobs called “sort of a new DVD player for the Internet age.” iTunes Extras supply the missing link between Apple TV and the DVD: a TV-friendly user interface presenting rich interactive bonus content.
A look at how iTunes LP and Extras work
TuneKit extinguishes Flash for authoring
Apple is disrupting the entire rich media/internet app industry, yanking the rug from under Flash just as Microsoft gets started in its own efforts to duplicate the increasingly unnecessary Flash runtime. But that’s not all that’s being disrupted by Apple’s iPhone/iTunes/WebKit combo.
TuneKit hastens death of the disc
Compared to the complex DVD authoring specification (originally written in Japanese and translated into ambiguous English) and the similarly convoluted Blu-Ray Java authoring platform, Apple’s TuneKit media authoring content platform is not just easier to use and more familiar to a wide range of web developers but also lacks the “bag of hurt” in licensing issues that Jobs correctly predicted would retard Blu-Ray’s adoption a year ago.
And while nobody is suggesting that iTunes downloads will overtake Blu-Ray among users with 50“ TV sets, Apple’s direction leaves Sony to justify its disc-based movie strategy after witnessing how Apple’s downloadable iPhone software platform shot holes through its disc-based PSP and how Apple’s downloadable iTunes enabled the iPod to eviscerate the market for MiniDisc.
Sony and Nintendo are scrambling along with Nokia, Microsoft and RIM to get in on the digital software markets that Apple created, perfected, and dominated all in the space of a year. Apple hasn’t just embarrassed smartphone vendors, but has also humbled the leading video game vendors. Can Blu-Ray movies bite off a large enough niche for to survive as physical discs grow obsolete?
A smoking gun
If you’re still not convinced about the Apple TV angle and think that Apple went through all this work to create TuneKit as a digital content specification that was only designed to ever playback within an iTunes window on a desktop computer, check out this code in the header of index.html:
<meta http-equiv=”Content-type“ content=”text/html; charset=utf-8“>
<meta name=”hdtv-fullscreen“ content=”true“/>
<meta name=”hdtv-cursor-off“ content=”true“/>
What intersection of HTML and HDTV exists outside of Apple TV? Sure, you can hook up your MacBook to a TV display, but why bother when you can plug in an accessory and wirelessly sync your iTunes Extras and LPs to it for big screen browsing?
Getting serious about a hobby
Apple TV has languished for two years as a hobby for Apple, serving as a relatively expensive way to rent movies (although it beats out Vudo in direct downloads, it’s hard to compete against NetFlix and its low tech DVD mailers), play audio out your TV’s speakers (something an Airport Express can do for less) and present podcasts, photos, and your own home videos on TV (features that work well but aren’t drop dead easy enough to result in blockbuster sales of the device).
Back in 2006 I presented five things Apple needed to do to get the Apple TV ball rolling. The first was on-demand content, which Apple has lined up rather well in iTunes, with premium, ad-free content you can buy a la carte or by the Season Pass. The second was personal content, which Apple makes fairly easy to play on Apple TV: home movies, iPhotos, and so on. This could be improved.
The third was alternative content, which Apple has lined up via podcasting. There is a wealth of mainstream and special interest programming you can tap into via Apple TV. Oddly enough, Apple’s own podcasts don’t always work on Apple TV, such as its latest iPod event that was delivered in a format that doesn’t play on the box. Apart from that lapse, Apple TV has lots of alt content to play. The interface for presenting it could be improved.
The fourth was interactive content, which examined the history of HyperCard and Flash to recommend games, widgets, and interactive electronic learning titles. So far, Apple has ignored the box as a potential target for third party development along the lines of the iPhone App Store.
Fifth was original content, the ability for Apple to commission its own unique content for distribution. That’s exactly what TuneKit appears designed to do, although rather than selling entirely original titles commissioned by Apple as I had in mind, it will primarily enrich media downloads that users already care about: new and classic albums and existing movie titles.
That’s not to say Apple isn’t producing original content. The Mayhem comic book, which accompanies a single sold as an iTunes LP, credits iTunes as its producer. Apple is likely to open things up and allow anyone to create and sell interactive media content; anyone can already set up their own label and submit songs to iTunes for sale. The potential for this market is similar in many ways to the software market Apple created for the iPhone.
Since writing those articles, I have outlined a few other suggestions for Apple TV 3.0: Apple needs to add iTunes radio support; make iTunes U content more prominent; expose an SDK for creating interactive content (that’s what TuneKit does) and build support for mini-games in the same sense as the iPhone.
Actually, all Apple needs to do on the games front is to release a couple original titles that allow iPhone users to play games that interact with a server module on Apple TV, such as making its Texas Hold’em title allow for group play on TV. Everyone else trying to stand out in the App Store would follow suit.
Apple TV content: you’re soaking in it!
When the iPhone arrived, Apple initially shipped it as a closed device. Once it had an installed base of over five million users, it sprung out the SDK and App Store, giving developers a significant installed base to reach. With Apple TV, the company is creating the content in advance of Apple TV reaching a broad audience by pretending that iTunes LP and Extras are designed to only work on computers running iTunes.
Once it sells a few million copies of iTunes media with free bonus content, it can spring out Apple TV 3.0 with the capacity to play this easy to navigate, big screen content in the living room.
That update should also incorporate support for HTTP Live Streaming, which holds the potential for Apple TV to be more like a TV and less like computer. That is, immediately playing something the moment you turn in on, rather than just sitting there presenting a menu of text options.
Convergence resistance: the TV is not a PC
Somewhat ironically, QuickTime once tried to turn the PC desktop into a TV-like experience by defaulting to open a QuickTime window of content blaring upon launch. People hated this for the same reason they hate websites that start playing audio when you visit them: the PC desktop is supposed to be quiet until you choose to play something. The TV is the opposite; people expect it to be playing the moment it is turned on.
Apple TV needs to borrow that abandoned strategy of QuickTime and present a live streaming feed upon launch. Or offer one of several channels: a news feed, Apple information (maybe its retail store Genius employee podcast offering tips), sports, tech, movie trailers, an ad showcase, and whatever else. Just make it do something the moment it’s turned on, so people recognize it as a TV experience.
Of course, at the other extreme you have Microsoft, which rather unimaginatively sells its Media Center DVR software as a way to scrounge through the sewer pipe that is ad-encrusted cable TV looking for salvageable content. Apple’s strategy is about creating a premium product that innovates, not attempting to frost old ways of doing things with a new layer of makeup.
Contrast the experience of the Nintendo Wii with the Sony PS3: the Wii presents a grid of ”channels“ that either launch games, its browser, its store, or manage settings. The PS3 presents a brain-dead menu system that forces you to navigate through lots of text in order to do anything. A lot like the launch page of today’s Apple TV. Hint: a TV device should show boxes of moving pictures one can select from.
Next, make it easy to experience iTunes LPs and movies with iTunes Extras (this already has the groundwork laid for it). After that, we can chat about opening up the box to third party developers. But enough with my hypothetical imagineering on how to fix Apple TV. Clearly, the company is already working on it.