Back in the bad old days, when the world was in black and white and the Zune was just a glint in Satan’s eye, Microsoft marketed something called “Plays For Sure”. Actually, “marketed” is a bit of a stretch, but the idea was that just like the VHS symbol of the ancient civilizations, you looked for this logo on portable devices and in purchased digital media, the idea being that it would be compatible and “play for sure” (do you see where they were going with this?).
Unfortunately, Plays For Sure was only adopted sparsely and inconsonantly by hardware manufacturers and instead of being a unified legion of common standards, it might as well have been called “Plays Windows Media Files”. Also, just because you had a digital video player that sported the Plays For Sure logo, that might only refer to WMA. If you actually had a commercial WMV file, the player still might not handle it. Honestly, leave it to Microsoft to take a good idea and screw it up. So what did people buy instead?
The Poisoned Apple
“It discourages independent thought, it is divisive, and it is dangerous”
Actually, I’m quoting someone else here, who said that about something else entirely, but I can’t help thinking that it somewhat applies. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s talk about the damn iPod.
I used to be a big fan of the iPod, which is basically an Apple TV with a screen. I make this distinction, because media-streaming aside, an iPod is as insular and incompatible as an Apple TV and with a £40 (!) cable, an iPod IS an Apple TV. Now I will concede that there is a unique elegance and integration about Apple media hardware which is still (bizarrely) not found anywhere else. The iPod touch has an amazing interface, and I still maintain that you really haven’t had full intuitive access to a movie until you’ve seen what Apple do with chapters on the iPod touch. Oh yes, it’s really that ace. The Apple TV is famous for “just working”, so it’s ideal, right?
I won’t waste your time by telling what you already know, about how purposefully crumby iTunes is on the PC and by the time we’re done with this article, trust me here, it no-longer matters. But the iPod / Apple TV does still all boil-down to iTunes and more importantly in the context of video, something called “AVC” or “H.264”. Some of you will know what I’m talking about here, and some of you won’t.
For those who don’t, think of H.264 as the new MP3 for video. Smaller files, better quality. In the words of Daft Punk, it’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. At least, that’s true if you’re an iPod / Apple TV owner, and your only alternatives are MPEG-4 or MOV formats. There are better, less CPU intensive Codecs than H.264, but as an Apple device owner, you don’t get to utilize any of them.
iTunes has always been the binding element of Apple in the real world and without it, they’d still be a tin-pot company selling machines to media-types who design bus-stop posters and don’t know how to use computers. Would you be an iPod owner if you still had to use it with Music-Match jukebox? (Not you, Mac owners, you don’t count, remember?) When you think of everything about the iPod you have to put up with, just for the privilege of using the organizational features of iTunes, I think you start to see my point. It’s all compromise. There must be a better way.
The Big-Ass Hard Disk
I really went round the houses with Media Sharing in XP and Vista, specifically with the Xbox 360 and I’m not ashamed to say that without exception, it’s absolutely horrible. I’ve talked about what happens when you try and play iTunes .mp4 files through the clunky Media Sharing Service in a previous article, but even your vanilla movie files are not reliably and immediately accessible enough to make it an everyday tool like, for example, a toaster or…oh, I don’t know, a DVD player!?
This would have been where I did a wrap-up to the trilogy, basically telling you to copy all your videos to a USB external drive and strap it to your Xbox 360. It plays almost anything, doesn’t know what DRM is, you can take it with you round to your mate’s house. It’ll even work on his PC (or indeed Mac) if he doesn’t have an Xbox. It’s actually still not a bad idea (because it’s immediate, is as easy to use as a Sky+ box and when plugged in to a device such as the Xbox 360, your computer doesn’t have to be on), but if you do that, you are now missing out.
In the third quarter of 2009 (educated guess), everything changes. Of course for some of us at the coal face, that change has already happened. Read my take on the amazing Windows Media Center for Windows 7 next time in “The Digital Nomad 2.0” and trust me here, it changes everything.
The Average Windows Nerd