99¢ TV Rentals from NBC

AppleInsider reported yesterday that NBC strongly opposes Apple’s 99¢ price point for TV show rentals. Though NBC offers shows for purchase on iTunes for $1.99 ($2.99 for an HD version), NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker was quoted as saying 99¢ rentals “would devalue our content.” Putting aside the reasonableness of this position, NBC’s credibility on the issue is pretty weak. Why? They’ve caved on iTunes pricing before.
Think back to late summer 2007, when NBC pulled all of its content from iTunes after Apple refused to increase the per-episode price to $4.99. At the time, NBC shows accounted for 30% of TV show sales on iTunes. A year later, NBC was back on iTunes at the same price point, along with HD versions for $2.99. Apple held their ground on pricing, and NBC backed down. Apple doesn’t need NBC shows. People will still buy iPods and iPhones, and even Apple TVs, without 99¢ TV rentals from NBC. Might Apple sell more devices if they had NBC on board? Sure. But something tells me they aren’t wetting their pants about waiting NBC out on this one.

Boxee Box vs. Apple TV

I’ve been thinking about buying some kind of Internet-connected TV set-top box, for movies and TV shows, for quite a while now, but I recently took the plunge and pre-ordered the new Apple TV. I’ve avoided buying a Blu-ray player, because I don’t want to buy a whole new set of (more expensive) discs when it seems like a fully disc-less future is right around the corner. Both Apple TV, shipping in the next 2-4 weeks, and the Boxee Box, which entered pre-orders today, seem to fit into the new no-disc world I’m looking for.
Conceptually, the two share a basic idea: stream content from the Internet or, in the case of Apple TV, other devices, to your TV. They’re both pretty small boxes that sit unobtrusively on a shelf. Originally, I thought I might go for the Boxee Box, which just entered pre-orders, but in the end, I thought Apple TV was a better fit. Here’s why:

Content I Want
Apple TV gets most of its content from iTunes. You can rent and stream movies and TV shows from the iTunes store, and they’ve got a decent selection to choose from. My guess (and Apple’s) is that the catalog of TV shows available to rent at $0.99 per episode will expand over time. That’s certainly been the case with the library of music and movies. You can also stream movies and TV shows from other Macs and iOS devices in your home. (More on that in a minute.) Finally, Apple TV can play movies available for instant watching from Netflix. I can already do that with my TiVo, but it’s a nice perk to have it integrated with the Apple TV as well.

Boxee, on the other hand, streams content from online video sources. It sports and impressive library of TV shows available to stream instantly. However, most of those shows come directly from ad-supported sites run by the networks that produced the show – NBC, TBS, etc. I don’t mind ads all the time, but I want the option of paying for content without them. Moreover, Boxee doesn’t seem to offer a movie library at all, although like Apple TV, it does integrate with Netflix and allows you to play videos from your computer.

Sadly though, those movies and TV shows from iTunes won’t play on the Boxee Box – they’re protected by Apple’s copyright protection. Nobody loves DRM, but it seems it’s a necessary evil for now, and if I have to buy copyright protected-content from somewhere, it’ll probably be from iTunes. I also keep my music and movies in iTunes, and I want a box that connects seamlessly to iTunes running on my computer. That means Apple TV.

Other Devices
Both Apple TV and Boxee Box can play music and videos stored on your computer. However, Apple as taken things one step further. Starting with the release of iOS 4.2 for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, you’ll be able to stream video from your mobile devices to your Apple TV. That means I can
download or rent a movie on my phone and play it on the big screen with my Apple TV. More enticingly, anecdotal reports suggest that streaming from iOS to Apple TV isn’t limited to iTunes content, suggesting the possibility of streaming all sorts of video content, from YouTube to live MLB games from the MLB app.

The new Apple TV is $99, while the Boxee Box is $199.
I could buy or rent a lot of movies and TV shows on iTunes with the $100 difference — and none of them would have ads.

Open Standards

I’ve seen quite a few blog and Twitter posts complaining that the live video stream of today’s Apple media event is available on Mac OS and iOS only. Moreover, some people seem to be upset because Apple claims to be using “open standards.” Most of these complains are something along the lines of “What good are open standards if you can only access them from Apple products?”
Apple is the first to admit that the live stream is only available on Apple devices, and only a subset of them at that:

Viewing requires either a Mac® running Safari® on Mac OS® X version 10.6 Snow Leopard®, an iPhone® or iPod touch® running iOS 3.0 or higher, or an iPad™.

But that’s not the end of the argument. I think what people are complaining about is the use of the word “standard.” Surely, anyone can comply with the open HTTP Live Streaming specification, though it is probably not 100% finalized. It is not, however, standard. The word “standard” implies wide use and acceptance, and although HTTP Live Streaming will probably become a true standard eventually, it’s not yet a standard today.

I think Apple is using the term the way most people understand it, however. “Open standard” has come to mean something more along the lines of “not closed and proprietary.” The point is not how commonly it is used, but whether it could be used by anyone who wished to develop software using the proposed specification. The more widely it’s used, the more “standard” it becomes. Applying the word “standard” only to software already in wide use does little more than make “standard” synonymous with “old” or “outdated.”

One last note about Apple’s choice of HTTP Live Streaming for the media event today: streaming live video is a tricky business. Back in the day, Apple had all kinds of trouble with video streams of keynote addresses – they’d break down from high traffic, and were often of fairly terrible quality. Especially since this is the first live stream they’ve done in a while, I’d expect Apple to pick the technology they were most confident would work well. In fact, that’s always Apple’s MO: use the best technology available to deliver the best user experience. If there are side effects of those choices that people don’t like, tough. That’s just how Apple works.