Rumors of a video iPod have been kicking around the Internet for quite a while, fueled more by fans' optimism than by any hard data about...

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Rumors of a video iPod have been kicking around the Internet for quite a while, fueled more by fans’ optimism than by any hard data about what Apple was working on (which are harder to acquire than most government secrets).

Like the longed-for but mythical Apple-branded personal digital assistant, the video iPod was something most people believed wouldn’t actually appear. Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs had even spoken publicly about how a video iPod doesn’t make sense because video is typically consumed once and demands your complete attention, whereas music is played numerous times in the background.

At a special media event Wednesday, however, Jobs announced the fifth-generation iPod, adding the well-scripted afterthought, “And yes, it does video.”

What’s interesting about the new iPod is not that it’s an “iPod video” (to steal the naming convention of the iPod nano or iPod shuffle), but that it’s a regular iPod that also happens to play video. That’s an important distinction, and it indicates Apple is dipping its toes into consumer video rather than jumping headlong into still-uncharted waters.

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Speculators envisioned an iPod that more closely resembled Palm’s LifeDrive or the Sony PlayStation Portable, featuring a large widescreen display to take advantage of widescreen movies. After all, the iMac, PowerBook and Cinema Display models sport the wide aspect ratio, so an iPod with a huge screen seemed like a natural fit.

The new iPod does feature a wide screen, measuring 2.5 inches in diameter with a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels, but it’s located at the top of the face above the click wheel, just as with previous iPods. I haven’t seen one firsthand yet, but early reports indicate that the screen is sharp and playback is smooth; the iPod can play video encoded with MPEG-4 or H.264 compression (the latter being a cool new feature of QuickTime 7 for creating high-quality video) at 30 frames per second, which is the same as television playback.

So where will this video come from? iMovie or iPhoto can export QuickTime movies you can store on the iPod and show your friends; who needs to schedule a screening of your vacation video when you can show it off at dinner parties or on the sidewalk?

Of course, you probably won’t be watching your own content most of the time, which is where another of Apple’s announcements comes in: the new free iTunes 6 and the iTunes Music Store. (Jobs also introduced a new iMac G5 with improved specifications, built-in iSight video camera and a remote control to power new Front Row media-management software; I hope to review it in an upcoming column after Apple begins sending out review units.)

When I purchased the latest Death Cab for Cutie album from the iTunes Music Store, I also received a short video of the band talking about making the album. Several albums now also come with music videos, which can be played within iTunes or, now, on the new iPod. As of this week, you can also purchase music videos for $1.99 each.

It’s funny that music videos, started as marketing pieces to drive sales of albums, are now for sale themselves. Honestly, I don’t know who would want to spend $2 on a music video, but as my wife reminded me, I’m not a 13-year-old girl with a crush on some lead singer.

More interesting is that you can also purchase television shows from the iTunes Music Store, also at $2 per episode. Currently, five shows are available, all from Disney-owned ABC: “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Night Stalker,” “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and “That’s So Raven.” Original episodes appear the day after they air on television, and earlier seasons are also available.

But there’s the rub: It remains to be seen who will pay $2 each for episodes that can be watched free on television, especially if you own a TiVo or other personal video recorder. The videos from Apple are encoded at 320 x 240 pixels, the same resolution as the iPod’s screen, so the quality is fairly poor when played back on a television (the newest iPod dock, available separately for $39, has a video-out port) or even a moderately sized monitor.

Also, unlike music you buy from the store, you can’t burn videos to a CD or DVD for viewing later; the video files incorporate Apple’s FairPlay digital-rights management, enabling them to be played on up to five authorized Macs or an unlimited number of iPods.

However, for people who commute long distances or travel frequently, the option of watching TV on the go has more appeal. Is it enough to warrant Apple’s entry into the market?

Ultimately, I think the answer is yes. The current limited number of options (Apple approached only ABC for content initially, since Jobs already has a relationship with Disney as CEO of the movie studio Pixar) indicates that these are just the first steps into offering digital video. We’re seeing the foundation of a platform being constructed; sure, the video quality is limited now, but the pieces are in place to sell and distribute movies, short films (six of Pixar’s award-winning shorts are currently for sale) and more television shows.

We’ll just have to wait for Apple to dangle its feet in the water to see how serious the company is about being a full-fledged video store.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.