Brad Feld

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Why the Apple iTunes Movie Store And Its DRM Sucks

Mar 07, 2006
Category Technology

Once a year, the Feld men over 5 feet tall (me, my brother Daniel, my dad, my uncle Charlie, and my cousins Jon and Kenny) go away for the weekend and play.  This year we went to Phoenix for spring training and I disconnected from email for the weekend.  After a full day of meetings yesterday (classic VC Monday) and an evening of 24 (two full hours of Jack trying to save the world, more presidential screw ups, and a serious body count), I find myself finally caught up on email.  In my inbox was a guest blog from Ross (my IT guy) ranting on about DRM and the Apple iTunes Movie Store.  I love a good flame so I thought I’d share it with you.  Here goes (lightly edited by me.)

We all know why DRM sucks, right? Well actually I think most people don’t really understand why it sucks – last night the real reason dawned on me.  However, first let me take you through my journey from the other night.

Melanie (my wife) and I have started to watch (and love) the NBC show The Office. Steve Carell is great and the entire cast is just awesome. While you’ve never worked in their office you’ve probably worked in one pretty close. We missed the first few episodes so we wanted to go back to the beginning to see them in order. So I fired up Firefox and went online to search for the old episodes. It didn’t take long, and after a bit I had them downloaded so we could watch them. However since I grabbed them online the quality was pretty crappy (but watchable) so I decided to buy them from iTunes assuming the quality would be better since they’d be legit.  Here begins my saga.

I love to live on the edge of media technologies. I have nine computers in my house running everything from my normal desktop/laptops to three digital photo frames that I built, and two media center PCs.  I have a Treo 700 (with 4GB of memory) and my wife has a Treo 650 (with 2GB of memory). One of the things we love about them is being able to watch video on them (yes I’ve watched several full length movies on them.) In my bedroom I have a home built Windows Media Center PC connected to my 42″ HD plasma TV. The main use for this box is to watch TV shows in my bedroom (like The Office – recorded from my other Media Center PC) and the occasional movie. I happen to have iTunes on this box so I fired it up to purchase The Office. The iTunes interface was good and I had no trouble finding and purchasing the episode that we wanted to see which only took about three minutes total to do. It then took roughly ten minutes for it to download (over my 8MB Comcast cable) so we talked while it was coming down. After it was downloaded we settled in to watch it.  Here’s where things went bad.

I double clicked on the episode to play it and iTunes asks for my password (again). I type it in and blamo – I get an error that I’ve already authorized five computers and have to deauthorize one before I can watch this episode. What? I just paid $1.99 for this ten minutes ago on this computer and now I can’t watch it? What? Now, the real problem is I have no idea which five computers have been authorized (remember I have 9 in my house and countless PC’s at work.)  Since I rarely use iTunes for anything and am instead a Rhapsody subscriber (highly recommended), I have no idea how five PC’s were authorized in the first place. Ok, so now I’m pissed – I just paid $1.99 and waited 15 minutes to watch something (which I already had) and I can’t because of DRM.  Can someone explain how this is a good deal for consumers?

So I go to the regular PC in my office to do some Googling to look for a hack so I could at least watch what I just paid for! After about 10 minutes on Google I figured out that, once per year, you can run a command that will deauthorize ALL computers on your account. Since I don’t care about the other PC’s (you might) I deauthorized them and after that I was able to watch the episode. This is just so wrong. If it took me 10 minutes of Googling to find this answer and figure it all out then my bet is 99% of the population would have just given up at this point as most people would never in a million years deal with shit like this when normally they just turn the TV on and watch. This is ridiculous.

Ok, so it’s now about 30 minutes later, Melanie is beyond annoyed, almost to the point that she doesn’t even want to watch the episode, but I talk her into it. Now, remember what I said earlier, I have my PC connected to my HD plasma so we can watch videos like this. I double click the episode and it starts playing. But man does it look like shit.  I mean not like VHS quality, like total shit quality. Almost unwatchable. I paid $1.99 for this crap? It’s no better than the garbage I downloaded off the net in the first place. Why even bother with this?

So I thought about who Apple’s target audience is. Obviously it’s iPods and not real TV’s (not yet anyway). However lately you read all about their potential iTunes Movie Store and the new Intel Mac Mini and how it’s going to take over the living room. There’s one huge issue with this. The quality of these videos is horrible.  I will never purchase another one since I can get better quality online (from *other* places).  In the past when I’ve missed an episode of 24 I’ve been able to find it online hours after the show in full HD quality! What the hell is Apple thinking? The people that are going to buy movies are going to want them for more than their iPods but for that the quality has to be at least as good as broadcast TV (and should be DVD/HD quality). Obviously I understand the bandwidth issues here but this half ass attempt now is going to kill them in the future (and has killed them for me now.) People on the cutting edge of this stuff don’t have their PC’s hooked up to a 10 year old CRT monitors!

So while everyone loves Apple and the inroads they are making into our living rooms I think they are completely missing the point. Yes the iTunes Music Store is easy to use and has tons of content. Yes they’ve sold a billion songs, that’s because the audio quality is near perfect. They are not going to sell a billion videos, not like this simply because the quality sucks.  Forget about the DRM – they’ve totally lost me at this point – I’m now looking for a similar service that offers quality and DRM that works. While I understand the need for DRM and I support it, at least until it keeps me from doing thing that are 100% legal – for example watching something I just paid for! 

So after $1.99, 30 minutes of effort to watch a 20 minute show on crappy video, Apple had lost me, at least for now.  At least The Office made me laugh.

Rant off.