xkcd strip

I expend more brain cycles than I’d like thinking about gaps in collections of mine. For example, I have season three of Mad Men but not seasons one and two. I’ve seen them both, but I feel a need to own them. Knowing there’s a bit of a hoarder in my blood, I guess it’s good that my vices are movies and comic books rather than statues or cars.

As far as my compulsions go, I also can’t stand having things in mixed formats. If I miss out on a comic book series and don’t start reading it until it’s been coming out for a few years, I can’t just start reading it in single issues. I either have to start with trade paperbacks and stick with them or go back and find all the individual back issues. Ideally I supposed I’d later have all the single issues bound, but binding services charge about what simply buying the collections from the publishers would end up costing.

iTunes has always come with the ability to put a CD into your computer and convert it to MP3 files, with song titles automatically filled in. Later versions even brought in album artwork. Before iTunes, WinAmp did it, as did a number of other music jukebox applications, but no such feature has ever existed for DVDs. Handbrake will import DVDs (with the help of VLC), but you have to navigate through myriad confusing settings and use another program to add metadata (the movie’s name, release year, etc.) to the file. I’m sure there are legal reasons why no one’s made this easier and, in Apple’s case, business concerns regarding their contracts to offer movies in iTunes.

I have an Apple TV which I use to watch cable shows I’ve bought from iTunes that I can’t watch on broadcast channels. Lately, with speculation going around about whether the iPad will be a dud, I’ve heard the Apple TV offered up as an example of a Steve Jobs-era Apple product that wasn’t a smash hit. It’s a funny product. It nicely represents Apple’s (and, many assume, Jobs’s) unwavering adherence to a point of view of how things should be, and also fits in with the feeling that Apple’s more concerned with building a closed ecosystem than compromises. Why doesn’t the Apple TV play Hulu videos? Is it because Apple thinks people want to build libraries of shows that they own instead of viewing streaming episodes, or because Apple wants you to have to buy shows from them, not get them elsewhere? Internet video is only truly useful if you can get it onto your TV, and the Apple TV provides that, but only by being a conduit for iTunes and nothing more. For some, the Apple TV appears to be the company saying, “well of course you’d want to buy all your TV and movies from us. Why would you ever need to look anywhere else?” But inherent in the MP3 craze was the notion that you could still rip and listen to all your CDs without ever giving Apple a dime (recall that iTunes the music player was around for a few years before the iTunes Music Store came out). With video, though, it’s either 1) buy from Apple, or 2) learn about, install, and figure out a complex set of video conversion tools to encode your movies.

Not that I think Apple’s totally wrong on all fronts here. If you consider the switch to HD from DVD, basically there are two options out there: buy a Blu-Ray player and a whole new set of discs, or download HD movies from iTunes. With Blu-Ray you get higher quality, but you’re stuck with the limitations of a physical disc, like that you can’t play a Blu-Ray movie on your iPod, you have to get off the couch to put a disc into your player, and that you can lose the disc. With downloads you have lower quality (though still higher than DVD) but you can play them on more devices, and you can have instant gratification rather than having to drive to Best Buy to get a new movie. Apple is clearly making the bet that eventually movies are going to be like music and we’ll just have them all on our hard drives. But for that to happen, hard drive space needs to expand.

My Apple TV has 160 GB of storage. A feature-length film in standard definition is 1-2 GB. Add an HD copy on top of that and you need 5 or so gigs per movie. Season three of Mad Men in high definition comes in just under 30 GB, and that’s for a short 13-episode season. Using those figures, I can only fit 5 short seasons of TV, or 30 HD movies, on my Apple TV. And all of that video needs to be backed up on my Mac, too. My MacBook has a 250 GB hard drive. So, even with drives starting to be counted in terabytes, we’re a ways off from being able to store all our DVDs on our computers and sync/stream them to Apple TVs.

Eventually, we’ll sit down in front of our TVs and pick any movie we want to watch from a list and be able to watch it instantly. It’ll be one we own, or it’ll be one we rent pay-per-view (or maybe as part of a prepaid plan, Netflix style). Either way, it will show up via a network. More or less, storage space is the only thing standing between where we are now and that future. (The other big thing being getting the movie and TV companies to agree to sell their stuff online.)

In actuality, I could go out and spend a few hundred dollars now and have the space I’d need to rip all of my DVDs to an external drive. But external drives go against the laptop-pushing ethos Apple has been trumpeting lately. To get it all to work, all my movies would need to be in iTunes, which would get angry if I tried to launch it without the drive connected. In other words, I need a desktop.

This is where I think the iPad fits in. Steve Jobs presented it as a new device that sits in between the iPhone and the laptop, but I have a hunch it’s going to end up replacing the laptop for our portable computing needs and getting us back to using desktops for our more involved computing. A higher end MacBook Pro is the same price as an iMac and an iPad. But even then, if I had an iMac with enough space for all of my movies on it, my Apple TV would still need for the iMac to be awake whenever I wanted to watch non-cached videos.

Steve Jobs tends to describe the Apple TV as a “hobby”. I think it’s these details that has kept it there. On the one hand, it might make sense for the Apple TV to be more of a media server with a very large hard drive which would be the primary residence for one’s iTunes files instead of a computer. On the other hand, you want some of that stuff on your computer for when you’re just listening to music or whatever. A bit of engineering could get all that to sync up, but Apple hasn’t made it a priority. (Maybe they could even include a slot for DVDs and some ripping software.) Instead, they’ve been laying the groundwork slowly, as Amazon did with the Kindle. The first Kindle wasn’t something that everyone was going to run out and buy, but Amazon felt that ebooks were the wave of the future so it started setting up a system for them. Apple’s doing the same with digital video, but it’s needed to wait until a few more things make sense before going all in. It still has to negotiate deals with lots of Hollywood studios who neither understand nor trust technology, it needs to work out how to deal with the amount of storage space required by movie collections that contain a few hundred movies, and it (hopefully) needs to give us a way to rip all the movies we already own.

(While all this is going on, of course, someone could toss together a Linux box with a huge hard drive that auto-rips inserted DVDs and runs Boxee as a front end. Or TiVo could add that to their units.)