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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Why the Apple iTunes Movie Store And Its DRM Sucks

Comments (23)

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.

  • Bill Adkins

    Brad (Ross) – I couldn’t agree more. DRM is a necessity but something has to be done to make it a usable situation

    I suffered the same iTunes issue (music, not video) with more than 5 computers authorized, except I only have *2 COMPUTERS*!!!! I have no idea where 3 more got authorized. The amount of time that got wasted trying to first find out what was going on, and then trying to rectify the issue – a big problem for techies, and a total showstopper for non-techies.

  • Tobias Speckbacher

    I think the first issue here is that Apple does not advertise anywhere (i looked) that the videos sold on itms are specifically for consumption with an ipod.

    That basically means that the resolution of all that stuff is 320×240 no more, no less. That may change when the “real” video ipod comes out, doubtful though.

    I guess selling the full resolution version or even an HD version would cut into DVD sales ;).

    As for DRM in general, it is horrid for consumers. HDCP is the probably the worst thing coming down on that end. Early adopters get jibbed on their investment and it will probably make for a very, very sluggish adoption rate on HD-DVD or Blue-Ray, whichever one is going to win that race …

    Looking at it from the business end of content distribution, it seems to be the difference between a viable digital distribution model and not having one.

  • http://ben.casnocha.com Ben Casnocha

    I’m going to Phoenix next weekend for spring training and to see my brother play some college ball. Copy cat.

  • http://www.itsrishi.com Rishi Khaitan

    What’s funny is that using bittorrent, one can quickly locate and download all the episodes to popular shows such as the Office. Almost invariably the content available is top-notch (HD whenever available) and with a couple tweaks to one’s bittorrent client, download speeds are quite good. And, of course, you get a video file with no ugly DRM issues.

    Now, I’m not necessarily advocating the illegal downloading of copyrighted content. I am a paid subscriber to Yahoo Music because it adds value to my music listening experience and for my purposes it’s generally more convenient than downloading music illegally elsewhere.

    I would also be open to paying for video content if there existed a service which added sufficient value (selection, convenience, quality, etc) to my experience. However, I would certainly not pay $2/video to make my viewing experience more complicated and stressful.

  • Jim

    I find lots of irony in this post. For one, this guy is seemingly savvy and hip enough to have a killer setup in his house (I am impressed and working toward something similar at home), but not enough to know that itunes is a big waste of time (and money I am sorry to say) for anyone that cares about audio or video quality. I understand he is trying to do the right thing, but with the bevy of choices to get good high quality videos and audio for free or very cheap its a waste of time to try the crap you get on itunes. Itunes is great if you are planning on only using an ipod with the standard ear bugs. But if you want to run it on a high end sound system or even plug your Bose QC2s into your ipod, its crap. Its essentially a place for ipod rookies and novices to get songs and video, nothing more. If I could get from itunes for 1.99 what I get off torrents I would gladly do it, but I dont see it going there anytime soon. While I do feel a little twinge of guilt, I dont see GE going under because I download “the office” or Kanya West losing any bling in his lifestyle. I also will not sit on a plane for 4 or 5 hours bored because I feel bad about downloading copyrighted TV shows I missed.

    As for music, its interesting the post mentioned the office. Its obvious that the writers of the show are “in the know” about where to get quality stuff. If you remember the episode where Pam got the ipod and Dwight advised her to go to a “Russian website where you can download songs for pennies”. That comment refers to a certain site that I had passed to me by a friend almost 2 years ago with pressure to not tell too many people. The site has high quality rips well organized and for sale for .01 / MB. By searching on “russian MP3 site” you will find it pretty quick, but those that know about it have always kept quiet so it doesnt get too popular and go away like the others.

  • Michael Collins

    Apple doesn’t sell Plasma TVs; they sell iPods. The video looks great on the iPod, and that’s what potential customers will see current customers playing their video on…the iPod The poor quality that you described isn’t going to steer many mainstream customers away from Apple. I believe, until bandwidth issues are worked out, Apple has a good plan in place.

    Also, don’t blame Apple for the DRM. I know that if it were up to Apple there wouldn’t be any DRM on content bought from iTMS; it’s the record companies/network execs. I prefer FairPlay to Playsforsure.

  • http://www.db75.com Dennis Baldwin

    Brad,

    I feel your pain. I downloaded The Office from iTunes over the weekend, hoping to play it on my Windows Mobile device. I had to download a 3rd party vid player since Windows media doesn’t support the .m4v format. Then I had to download two plugins only to find out that I can’t get past the first frame of the movie.

    What suprised me even more is that Quicktime Pro won’t even let me export this as a .mov file. I paid for the damn thing, at least let me export it to a different format! So I spent about two hours only to come up short-handed. This DRM has really gotten on my last nerve.

  • http://www.db75.com/new_blog/?p=170 [db75]

    iTunes DRM and Windows Mobile

  • http://www.psynixis.com/blog/ Simon Brocklehurst

    Brad,

    What do you understand about the need for DRM, and why do you support it? The truth is that DRM doesn’t prevent piracy, and makes like difficult for consumers. You’ve now experienced the latter yourself. All DRM does is reduce the pace of development of, and adoption of, new technology.

    The reason we have DRM is that not enough people understand that it doesn’t, and can never work. It’s technically impossible for it ever to do so.

    I seem to recall that Apple didn’t want to include any DRM in its digital media offerings (Steve Jobs understands that DRM doesn’t and can never work, and makes life for consumers). However, the people in companies that own the rights to the media aren’t sufficiently techincally savvy to understand the issues. The word “clueless” comes to mind, in fact. So, Apple had to include DRM to be able to do deals with the record companies.

    If I was a long-term shareholder in record/film companies, I’d be furious that they have consistently squandered most of the opportunities to take advantage of the possibilities that digital distribution has offered for the last ten years.

  • Michael Dickey

    I had a similar problem trying to download episodes from iTunes of Battlestar Galactica that my Tivo failed to record (well, it recorded and then deleted them because I had the prefs setup wrong and waited too long to watch it).

    I wouldn’t mind paying $2 per episode if it just worked — even though I subscribe to SciFi and own a Tivo. I don’t even care much about the DRM since I would only watch it once and then delete it anyway.

    After the first episode I tried to watch, the quality was so bad that I too just downloaded torrents of the rest. I wrote a letter to Apple complaining about the quality — and surprise, never heard back. I knew about the iPod resolutions but hoped that they offered higher resolutions for TV users or that (I know it’s silly) the encoding would be so good that it would still look OK. I guess TV users just don’t matter as much to Apple as iPod users.

    I’m an avid Mac user — I own five of them currently. It’s just sad to watch Apple and the TV industry to be missing out on such a great opportunity.

  • http://tangent.nonhuman.net/2006/03/10/the-case-against-the-itunes-video-store-or-a-rare-rant-against-apple-and-pmps/ IT: Interesting Tangents

    The case against the iTunes video store, or a rare rant against Apple and PMPs

    As much as I am in favor of PMPs, and as much as I generally like Apple’s products there are plenty of problems surrounding the both. A good story illustrating this problem is here. Basically it was someone who ran into massive DRM-related proble…

  • David

    What I think is the DRM isn’t mature enough.
    I think this is only a system to convince the company that there’s a control on the media and it can prevent piracy.
    I don’t think DRM is ready….. and I think there should be a better system that could do the job for the client (user… we) and that can satisfy the companies.
    But there wasn’t enough time to develop such a complicated program for the business like Apple, Napster who need something that works to make more money in shortest time.
    You have experienced a great example about the “dark side” of the DRM.

  • helio9000

    The quality of iTunes audio isn’t anywhere near perfect. It is good enough for most people but there is a clear difference between an iTunes song and one ripped @ high quality. The Apple store works because of convenience which is bigger factor to many people than quality.

  • tracelan

    I downloaded an episode of Battlestar also and would have to agree the video quality sucks. Not only that but you can’t burn it to a DVD. At least not a DVD that a DVD player can play. I didn’t want to watch it on my computer, I wanted to watch it on my TV. I assumed since I can download a song from itunes and burn a CD I could do the same with a video, I was wrong. That was the last video I will buy from itunes. I haven’t bought a song from itunes since then either.

  • Dan

    Where did he download it from initially that the quality was poor?? Seeds for the Office in high def XviD with no commercials are all over the bittorrent tracker sites. I can’t believe someone with multiple media center PCs didn’t know where to get it from.

  • http://www.limited-exposure.org Christian J. Koch

    I-tunes does suck!

    Great post about it though.

  • Nick Robertson

    I agree will you all and luckily have only wasted a few pounds on music downloaded from ITMS, I would rather go out and buy the material on CD/DVD, at least then its mine to do with as I please.
    I loathe itunes music store and will never ever use it again. Waste of time and money. Don’t bother.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/iphonebooy iphonebooy

    If you move Apple's stuff,you need software.
    iPod transfer has another name,ipod copy or copy ipod,same meaning:
    Get your ipod stuff out. http://www.ipod-copy-transfer.com/

  • Apple hater

    Dude you think that is bad? I just bought $50 worth of a Movie Season called Legend of the seeker… Just to find out i cannot convert the file or make it play on my PS3 for viewin on my big screen tv..Apple SUCKS!!!

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