Apple forges path to digital living room

All of Apple's new gear

Apple Computer overhauled its digital music and video offerings on Tuesday in the US, introducing new iPods in three categories and announcing plans to make movies available for purchase through the iTunes store.

Movies from four studios owned by The Walt Disney Company will be available on iTunes 7, the new version of the download software, the same day they are released to DVD, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in outlining the new offerings at a product showcase in San Francisco. Preorders and movies purchased in the first week will cost US$12.99; the price then bumps up to US$14.99 for new releases.

The studios are Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios, Touchstone Pictures and Miramax. Older titles will also be available for US$9.99.

For now, the movie downloads will only be available in the US, but "we hope to take this international in 2008," Jobs said.

Movies can be downloaded in near-DVD quality, Jobs said during his presentation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Consumers with broadband speeds of 5 megabits per second will be able to download movies from iTunes in 30 minutes, he added.

Apple also plans to introduce a product in the first quarter of 2007 that lets consumers stream their movies or music to televisions, Jobs said. The new device, code-named iTV, has 802.11 wireless built in. It will sell for US$299 and works with PCs and Macs. "We think it completes the picture here," Jobs said.

Australian pricing for the iTV is yet to be confirmed.

Tuesday's announcements marked more than just a tweak to existing products and services, one analyst said. "The big theme today was, Apple announced its intentions to take over your living room," said Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray.

Apple would not say which flavour of 802.11 wireless networking the iTV would use. "We're not talking about the technology inside iTV," Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller said in an interview. "That's next year's discussion."

But Apple has made its mark in digital entertainment with music, and for those who just want a music player, it is offering new iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle models, along with a new video iPod. The new Nanos feature twice as much capacity as the original generation of Nanos introduced last year, and are available in a variety of colours like the iPod Mini they replaced.

The new Nano will come in three models -- a 2GB in silver only; a 4GB in silver, blue, pink and green; and a 8GB in black only. Apple also will use an aluminum casing on the new generation of Nanos, perhaps to counter complaints that the Nanos were easily scratched. The 2GB version costs AU$219, the 4GB models cost AU$299, and the 8GB Nano costs AU$380.

The new video iPods have a 60 percent brighter screen for watching movies and television shows and a higher-capacity battery, delivering up to six hours of video playback on the 80GB model. The 80GB version costs AU$499, and a 30GB version costs AU$380. Consumers will be able to play games on the devices, including "Bejeweled," "Tetris," "Texas Holdem," "Zuma," "Pac-Man" and "Cubis", which cost AU$7.49 each.

Although the new video iPods have a brighter screen, better battery life and the ability to play games, Apple did not add wireless abilities or a larger screen, as some Apple watchers had predicted. Microsoft's forthcoming Zune player will include built-in Wi-Fi as well as a larger screen. However, it's unclear how bulky that player will be or what battery life it will offer.

Others to follow Disney?
As for the movies, notably, Apple launched with just Disney's studios, while rival Amazon.com announced last week that its Unbox service will include films from 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Entertainment and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Apple's desire to have new releases available the same day as the DVD may have been among the sticking points.

In addition, Apple now has a family connection with Disney. Jobs earlier this year became a member of the board at the venerable entertainment company, which acquired Pixar, where Jobs is CEO. But Disney CEO Bob Iger said he doesn't expect Disney to be alone on iTunes for long. "I'm confident there will be many more after us," Iger told CNET.com.au sister site CNET News.com in a brief interview after the Apple event. "We're the first but we will be one of many fairly soon."

Apple is also offering relatively fixed pricing, though new releases sell for more than older titles. Iger said he is perfectly comfortable with that notion and doesn't think that will prove to be an insurmountable hurdle for the rest of the industry. However, Disney is likely to team up with others. "It's nonexclusive," he said of the Apple deal. "We're platform-agnostic."

Jobs said that although the movies are a US feature, the company hopes to offer films internationally next year. Iger said that Disney is already in talks with Apple on overseas distribution.

Both the video iPod and iPod Nano come with a search feature that lets users find songs, artists or television shows by entering letters into a search bar rather than scrolling through the familiar menus. They will also allow users to sync their music collections on home and work PCs through the iPod, so songs added at home and synced to the iPod will transfer to a work PC when that iPod is plugged into a USB port.

Jobs called the new 1GB iPod Shuffle "the world's smallest digital music player." It's about half the size of the original iPod Shuffle, uses the same aluminum casing as the new Nanos, and has a clip built onto the back. It costs AU$119.

The new iPod and the iPod Nanos are available immediately, and the iPod Shuffle will be available in October.

Version 7 of iTunes is also available for download immediately. The addition of movies to the content available for purchase was the most significant new feature, but the new version provides music videos at a higher resolution than before, now up to 640-by-480-pixel resolution. The screens on the new iPods and iPod Nanos support this resolution, which will also improve the quality of movies played on a Mac, PC or television.

The lineup of television shows available on the iTunes 7 store will also now include highlights of football games through a deal with the National Football League's NFL Network, Jobs said.

For more coverage, see CNET.com.au's photo gallery of Apple's "showtime" event.

New products announced
iPod 5G updated iPod (updated 5th generation, 80GB)

The new "enhanced" iPod looks like a tremendous improvement over the last one, with a brighter screen and better battery life.

iPod Nano 2G iPod Nano (2nd generation)

Apple's second generation iPod Nano looks and feels better than the original, and comes in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB versions.

iPod Shuffle 2G iPod Shuffle (2nd generation)

Still screenless, the second generation iPod Shuffle is, according to Steve Jobs, the smallest MP3 player in the world.

iTunes 7 iTunes 7

iTunes 7 includes some great updates, like gapless playback, games downloads and a better interface, but Australian users so far miss out on the movie downloads available to American users.

iTViTV

Apple's digital media player that can stream movies, music, and photos from networked PCs and Macs.

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