Apple's big news is about movies

The Baltimore Sun

Steve Jobs did his usual job of prestidigitation at this week's Macworld expo. This was no mean feat, considering that Apple's CEO and pitchman extraordinaire had to follow last year's spectacular iPhone launch with a much less impressive bag of tricks.

But he managed to prove that Apple has turned the corner from also-ran computer company to premiere purveyor of gadgets and entertainment. That's where the market, and the money, is today, so Apple is chasing it.

The really big news was about movies. Thanks to a deal Apple struck with the major studios, you can now log onto the iTunes music store with your Mac or PC and download a rental movie ($2.99 for back titles, $3.99 for new releases).

You can store the movie for up to 30 days - a friendly feature - but once you start watching, the title expires in 24 hours, which matches the rules for on-demand service from most cable providers.

Now it gets cool. You can transfer a movie from one device to another, which means you can start a video at home in the evening and finish it on your iPod on the way to work in the morning (but not if you're driving, please).

Some high-definition titles will be available for a buck extra, but only for users of AppleTV, a wireless, set-top box designed to deliver the video stored on home computers to a home TV set.

Apple's normally loyal customers ignored the original AppleTV in droves, but Jobs hopes to resurrect it with a price cut (from $299 to $229) and new software that allows it to download movies directly from Apple's iTunes store without a computer as middleman.

Don't underestimate these video moves. Apple made the online music market by providing simple, legal access to a vast library of tunes and a dazzling little gadget to play them.

The new arrangement will ultimately give customers access to 1,000 film titles, and there are plenty of even-more-dazzling little gadgets to play them.

One of them is the iPod Touch, Apple's least appreciated but most endearing gadget. Think of it as an iPhone without the phone (which is no great loss), created when Apple realized that not all potential customers would want to switch to the iPhone's sole cellular service provider, AT&T.;

So Apple produced an iPod with the same beautiful wide screen and superb, multi-touch Safari Web browser as the iPhone, but with no talk capability or external network access. To use it online, you need access to a Wi-Fi network, which isn't hard to come by these days.

My wife - who was never exactly Gadget Girl - fell in love with the Touch the moment my son showed us his model during the Thanksgiving break. So I bought one, and we've enjoyed it ever since. It latched onto our wireless home network without a hitch, and we use it every day to check weather forecasts and movie schedules, browse the Web, get directions and settle the usual disputes without resorting to a full-size computer.

In fact, we rarely use the iPod Touch to play music. We have other iPods for that. (Although I have a reputation as a PC guy and not a Mac guy, I have developed a weakness for iPods - we've bought six of them over the last few years, several of which survive).

Unfortunately, Apple thought it had to cripple the Touch in some way to keep it from cannibalizing sales of the iPhone, so it left out the iPhone's built-in e-mail program and its customized version of Google Maps.

These weren't fatal flaws - we could check our e-mail on the Web with the Touch's Safari browser, which also gave us access to Web-based mapping sites. But I always thought it was kind of chintzy to hold them back.

Apple has fixed that now - in an equally chintzy way, by charging $20 to download an upgrade. This is a touch of minor venality that even the hated Bill Gates wouldn't resort to - especially since buyers of new iPod Touch players get the new applications built in. But I guess Apple customers are used to it.

After a series of downloads that took about 90 minutes, including a new version of iTunes on my PC, the new applications were on my iPod desktop, along with smaller "widgets" from the iPhone library that display the latest weather forecast, fetch stock prices, and allow you to type and e-mail notes.

The e-mail program allowed us to set up multiple accounts to handle mail from our regular POP3 mail server, along with our Yahoo and Google mail.

The mapping program also has some new usability features (which iPhone users get free). One of them will do its best to find your current location, a neat trick in a gadget without a GPS chip. It found ours about half the time.

Then it was time to rent a movie - no sweat. I chose Live Free, Die Hard, the latest Bruce Willis shoot-'em-up. The only hassle was waiting for the download - the 1.5 gigabyte file took about 40 minutes to transfer. So renting one this way won't reproduce the instant gratification of Comcast's on-demand movies.

It took another 10 minutes to transfer to my iPod, whose screen is beautiful but still not big enough to be my choice of venues. Still, it will do fine on a car or plane trip.

With the 30-day window, I can see loading up a few flicks before leaving on vacation and watching them on the road when I get the urge - on a laptop or the iPod.

All told, a good week for Apple's gadget fans.

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