Will the next Apple TV and iMacs come in Blu?

David Braue
23 September, 2009
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Apple has never been one to rush into new technologies lightly, preferring instead to sit on the sidelines until it can find an angle by which to add a bit of extra value (cf. Intel Macs, 13-inch MacBook Pros, DVD burners, TV-connected media players, FM radios in iPods). With Blu-ray now firmly entrenched as the high-quality distribution medium of choice, however, I can’t help but wonder why Apple is continuing to hold off on a technology that has arguably hit the mainstream this year.

A year ago, Steve Jobs famously described the upstart video-disc standard as a “bag of hurt”, citing the high licensing fees – estimated at $30 per unit – as a major reason the company had so far declined to support Blu-ray in any of its products, in any form.

A year later, I wonder how much longer Apple can hold off. Blu-ray is everywhere, helped by moderate-but-steady sales of Sony’s PlayStation 3 and prices on standalone Blu-ray players surging downward every week. Even handheld videocameras record HD video and it doesn’t take much more than $1000 to get a camera capable of recording full-resolution 1920×1080 HD video.

Apple recognised this trend early, rushing to market to support HD in its core video editing applications (cynics might also point out that Apple’s haste was explained by the opportunity to assert control over still-evolving HD standards). Yet even its high-end Mac Pro systems, which are more than capable of handling HD video editing with aplomb, are still limited to outputting movies to DVD.

This makes no sense whatsoever, especially when Apple is asking punters to pony up prices approaching five figures for its top-end systems. Given the cost of these systems, it’s also hard to support Jobs’ argument that Blu-ray was too expensive to impose on consumers. After all, Apple had no issue with effectively increasing the cost of its computers by $30 after it stopped shipping the Apple Remote with its systems.

So why is Apple still harbouring its aversion to Blu-ray?

The first explanation is the easiest. Namely, Apple has made no secret of its desire to push HD content through the iTunes Store rather than on disc; this ensures it keeps its fingers in that particular cookie jar, pulling commission and controlling the evolution of the iTunes Store experience.

This has sort-of worked for Australians, who have struggled with a relative lack of content and restrictive download limits. With broadband speeding up around the world, however, Apple may be holding out viz Blu-ray until its key markets get to the point where HD content can be as easily and quickly exchanged as music has been for years. It may take a while, but those in favour of diskless operations may be willing to wait.

The download-only idea is further supported by Apple’s introductions of iTunes Extras, an iTunes feature that allows the bundling of a range of value-added content around the feature film. Like the iTunes LP feature introduced with the launch of iTunes 9, iTunes Extras would finally allow online delivery of movies, complete with eye-candy value-adds, that would obviate the need for Blu-ray support.

Take this theory to its next step, and you’d have to concede that a new Apple TV seems likely in the near future. Apple has honed the Apple TV’s ability to act as a destination for iTunes content of all types, but now that it has a full content wrapper system available, it would make sense to deliver an upgraded Apple TV that lives and breathes iTunes Extras and iTunes LP-like content. People want to consume that sort of content from their TV, and Apple TV is the way to do it.

On that point: even though I’ve just argued that Apple doesn’t need to support an optical disc since it has pushed through with its own alternative, I reckon the company could do absolutely massive business by bundling a Blu-ray drive into its next-generation Apple TV. It worked wonders for Sony, which got many people to buy its PS3 largely based on the idea that it was an inexpensive Blu-ray player that happened to play games.

Painting Apple TV Blu? Deliver an Apple TV that plays both Blu-ray and downloadable content – and, perhaps, with an HD tuner, electronic program guide and recording capabilities – and I reckon the units would absolutely fly off the shelves. It would be a great concession from Apple that it is happy not only to force people to consume content its way, but that it wants to be relevant to people who want to consume content their way.

And for Apple’s computers? It is possible Apple will skip Blu-ray drives altogether; certainly, it can get by without them for some time since Blu-ray drives are still a luxury even in Windows-based systems.

The cost of the Blu-ray drives are, to be fair, an issue: readable BD-ROM drives, like those in consumer players, are relatively cheap, but read/write drives are still pretty expensive if only because they’re still relatively esoteric items. If Apple is able to bring that cost down through bulk purchases, and the new CPUs are widely available, we could perhaps expect to see internal Blu-ray drives as an option for the next generation of systems.

One would think even Apple recognises the opportunity to become a trailblazer in this area. With this in mind, it’s possible Apple has simply been waiting for systems with a bit more processor headroom, so that Blu-ray encoding doesn’t induce molasses-grade performance. With the recent upgrade to 64-bit Snow Leopard and the pending introduction of even quad-core iMacs based on Intel’s new i7 processors, the day Apple has been waiting for may have arrived.

Done right, a wholehearted embrace of Blu-ray could not only give Apple the technological high ground, but pave the way for a revamped Apple TV that could feed TiVo its lunch and help Apple own the Blu-ray living room space in one fell swoop. Heck, I’d buy one. All it takes is for Steve Jobs to open up the bag of hurt and turn it into something Blu-tiful.

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