During today’s Macworld keynote, Steve Jobs confirmed that Apple is adding movie rentals to its iTunes Store, entering a crowded market that includes similar services from major players, Microsoft (XBox Live), Netflix (Watch Instantly) and Amazon (UnBox), along with upstarts such as Vudu. However, for any new online movie rental service to succeed it will have to compete with traditional DVD rentals and illegal downloads — and to do so, must pass three basic tests: Content, pricing, and convenience. So how does Apple fare?
This is where Steve Jobs seems to have achieved the impossible. Despite Apple’s reputation for playing hardball with the entertainment industry, and antagonizing the major players in the process, movie rentals on iTunes will include content from all of the leading film studios, including 20th Century Fox, The Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Lionsgate and New Line Cinema.
Over 1,000 titles will be available by February (U.S.-only), with new releases being offered 30 days after their equivalent DVD rental window. Additionally, the iTunes rental store will feature content in High Definition (initially 100 titles).
Overall, pricing on iTunes is inline with traditional DVD rentals from bricks-and-mortar stores such as Blockbuster, as well as directly comparable online offerings. Movie rentals are priced at $2.99 for library titles and $3.99 for new releases, with High Definition versions costing one dollar more. However, when compared to subscription packages such as the eat-all-you-want service from Netflix, Apple’s prices soon add up, for all but the most casual movie watcher. Not offering a subscription option seems like a missed opportunity by Apple.
Content might well be king, but to get the content you have to appease the major movie studios. As we’ve written before, that means giving them what they want – not what consumers want – in terms of pricing, release windows and copy-protection. So how much ground has Apple conceded?
New releases 30 days after DVD
As already mentioned, the iTunes Movie Rental store won’t get access to new releases until about a month after their DVD rental window opens. The major film studios are instinctively risk aversive when it comes to new markets, and instead favor existing models. Apple hasn’t been 100% successful in persuading them otherwise.
24 hour viewing window
Once downloaded, rentals can be stored for up to 30 days. Once you press play, however, the clock starts ticking, giving you just 24 hours to complete your viewing. This makes it impossible to split a film over two nights, a requirement that is more common than you’d think, especially for those with kids.
Aside from a Mac or Windows-PC, movie rentals from iTunes are compatible with Apple’s line of video iPods (including the iPhone), along with the AppleTV for playback on a HD television. Additionally, a movie can be started on one device, and transfered, mid-viewing, for completion on another (limited to the 24 hour window of course).
Despite being limited to Apple-only hardware, the iTunes Movie Rental Store is way ahead in terms of multiple device support (both mobile and set-top box).
The iTunes Movie Rental Store is a step in the right direction but has conceded much of the same ground to Hollywood as competing services. Having said that, Apple’s strength is ease-of-use, and tight integration between its software and hardware, and this is where its movie rental service will likely shine.