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The Wall Street Journal on Apple TV

Apple_tv Today's dog-bites-man news: the Journal's Walt Mossberg got an exclusive pre-release look at the latest Apple device, and he loved it. The box in question is the Apple TV, which is designed to bridge the gap between your PC (or Mac) and your television set. Mossberg focused on the sort of questions that someone new to digital media would focus on. Is it easy to set up? (Yes.) Is it easy to use? (Yes.) Is the picture quality good? (Yes.)

To me, though, there's no reason to buy a "media extender," particularly not one as expensive as the Apple TV, unless it can do one thing: enable me to watch on my TV (and hear on my stereo) things that I can get only on my PC today, and that I'd rather experience in my living room. Those things include photos; home movies; downloaded songs and videos; and music, video clips and TV shows streamed from Web sites. Mossberg and co-writer Katherine Boehret didn't answer this question directly, but provided some clues. They note that the Apple TV can handle some of the digital photos scattered around your home network (although it's not clear whether you can plug a digital camera or memory card into the thing and show off your latest pics). They didn't address the home-movie issue, but Apple's website says the box is limited to particular flavors of MPEG-4 and H.264, which means most people would have to convert their videos to these formats to make them work. They gave the Apple TV high marks for the way it handled music and video stored on a home computer (with an important caveat, which I'll address later). But they conceded that the box cannot display content from YouTube, MySpace, NBC.com, Comedy Central's Motherload or any other Web site with audio or video streams, although they speculated that the software will eventually be updated to accomplish this feat.

The inability to handle streamed content makes the Apple TV a non-starter in my book, particularly at that price. Besides, I don't have digital TV. But there's another issue that Mossberg and Boehret mentioned in passing that is a real problem for the device, as well as seemingly every other one of its ilk. The content that is most clearly trapped on the PC is the stuff protected by electronic locks, a.k.a. digital rights management (DRM) technology. Some of it is Hollywood movies, for which there is an easy substitute at the local movie rental store. But some of it is content rented through Web-based audio or video subscription services, such as Vongo or Rhapsody. Just about every subscription service on the Net today (along with most of the legal download sites) uses Microsoft's DRM, which the Apple TV cannot handle. That's not because Microsoft won't make it available, but because Apple uses only its own DRM, which powers the market-leading iTunes Store. As a result, people who buy an Apple TV can't use it for content rented online or bought at any store other than Apple's. One ugly result is that someone who wants to watch, say, a missed episode of "24" can't use the Apple TV to watch it for free through MySpace. Instead, if they want to use their shiny new device to watch it in their living room, they'll have to plunk down $1.99 to buy it from the iTunes Store.

IMHO, the ultimate solution here is a media adapter that a) can handle material streamed from the Net; b) recognizes every digital media format in wide use by consumer-electronics and computer makers; and c) uses standard scrambling technology that the studios and music companies embrace, such as DTCP over IP. That way, the DRM used on downloaded content shouldn't matter, as long as the computer storing the content could connect securely to the media adapter. Yes, it would be a better world without DRM, but then we wouldn't have subscription services, downloadable movies, etc. etc. If Apple took this approach, its engineering and design skills would probably still trump anyone else in the market. Instead, it seems intent on promoting iTunes and the iTunes Store as the software platform for digital music and movies.

One other question that Mossberg and Boehret didn't answer, and I've never been able to persuade Apple to answer, either: will Hollywood movies and other high-definition content bought from the iTunes Store be viewable in HD on older HDTVs, or will the high-def output be limited to the HDMI connection? A geeky question, I know, but one that matters to millions of potential buyers whose HDTVs have only component video inputs.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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