Apple bridges gap between study and living room

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Downloading a film at near-DVD quality from the internet will certainly require patience.

According to Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, even with a broadband connection running at 5 megabits per seconds – out of reach of most people – it will take 30 minutes to download one of the new Walt Disney films that Apple made available on Tuesday on its iTunes store.

Yet this may not be the biggest obstacle to a mass market for digital media. Rather, the problem lies in moving video around the home once it has been downloaded. Movies, locked up on the home computer in the study, have no way to get to the TV in the living room, undermining the case for the new online distribution services that are starting to emerge.

On Tuesday, Mr Jobs unveiled the gadget that he claims will unblock this bottleneck. If he is right, Apple may have found a way to vault past other technology companies that have tried, largely in vain, to break into the living room in recent years – though the experience of others who have tried similar products in the past suggests that even with its renowned flair for consumer technology, Apple may struggle.

Mr Jobs’ product, code-named iTV, streams video from a computer straight to the TV over a short-range wireless network employing the widely-used 802.11, or WiFi, technology.

“This is an incredibly hard problem,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Jupiter Research. To get around the difficulty of distributing media around the home, “it seems Apple is taking on the whole network”.

Microsoft has tried this with a so-called “media extender” for its Media Center PCs, and has now also built the technology into its Xbox 360 games console. However, these services have proved too troublesome for most consumers, according to analysts.

An early pioneer in WiFi technology, Apple has a better chance of solving the problem than others, said Richard Doherty, an analyst at Envisioneering, a digital media research firm.

After its latest deal to sell Disney films through iTunes, it also has another ace up its sleeve: content. Other film studios, courted by Mr Jobs in earnest in recent months, have stood back for now, but Apple has overcome such resistance before.

Its first iTunes video service, for TV shows, was launched last October with only five shows from Disney’s ABC network, but now sells 220 shows from all the major networks. The film studios are likely to be drawn to Apple’s “closed” system based on the iPod, iTunes and, eventually, iTV, said Mr Doherty, since it assures greater protection against piracy than any of the rival technologies.

If Apple can succeed, it will have solved one of the central problems in the digital media business. “Expectations will be very high for this product”, when it comes out early next year, said Mr Gartenberg.

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