The Cloud Is Nice For Music, But Vital For Video

A new report by CNET’s Greg Sandoval yesterday gave an update on Apple and Google’s race to deploy music to the cloud. Basically, according to his sources, Apple isn’t close to doing anything massive in the space. Google, meanwhile, is likely closer but may have a hard time getting traction early on due to iTunes’ dominance. But the most interesting bit is buried a few paragraphs in.

According to Sandoval, the core Lala team (the music-streaming service Apple bought last December) inside Apple hasn’t been working on the cloud music solution. Hell, they haven’t even been working on music at all. Instead, they’re apparently working on “an undisclosed video feature.”

On the face of it, that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But actually, it might make perfect sense. As Sandoval hints at, music in the cloud is nice — but it’s video content in the cloud that’s needed. And I would argue it’s needed soon if Apple ever hopes to be a serious player in Hollywood content.

I’ve been arguing this for some time now: the iTunes ecosystem is on the verge of a major storage problem. And it’s quickly getting worse.

Each feature length movie you download on iTunes is already over a gigabyte in size. If it’s in HD the file size plumps up to a few gigabytes. That’s per movie. Apple’s latest iPhone, the iPhone 4, has a maximum storage limit of 32 GB. If you’re lucky, that means 10 of these movies.

Obviously, that’s not a huge problem right now as most people don’t need that many HD movies with them at all times. But if Apple truly believes that these mobile devices, devices like the iPad, are the future of computing, they’re going to need a better solution. The iPad has a maximum storage of 64 GB right now. That’s maybe 20 of these movies — and nothing else.

But the problem is just as daunting for traditional computers too. Full seasons of television shows in HD on iTunes take up dozens of gigabytes. I have what I would consider to be a modest collection of shows (Mad Men seasons 1 – 4, Lost seasons 4-6, The Office seasons 4-6, Dexter seasons 1-3, and a few others here and there). I had to buy an external drive to handle just those. Considering how cheap external 1 and 2 terabyte drives are now, it’s not a huge deal for me — but most consumers aren’t going to want to do that. Especially going forward.

The iPad is a lot less sexy when tethered to an external hard drive. Actually, you can’t even do that because there are no USB ports.

The situation is completely untenable. The more popular video content on iTunes becomes, the more serious the storage problem becomes. Customers will begin hitting walls and will be forced to delete content because they can’t store it all.

That’s why cloud storage makes so much sense. Netflix is the big success right now in terms of Hollywood content online. How do they do it? Increasingly, it’s through streaming. Hulu? Streaming. Apple’s model will obviously be different. But if they can convince the studios to allow customers to store their purchased movies on Apple servers (maybe in that new massive data center in North Carolina) and stream them as they need them, it will solve the storage problem.

Further, perhaps Apple could allow customers to download files as they need them to take on the road. And then they could delete them when done.

Piracy is obviously a concern here. But the process shouldn’t be too different from the way it’s currently set up (especially with rentals). You could still have a maximum number of traditional computers you would sync your files with (since, unlike music, they’re all still loaded with DRM).

The rumors of a new cloud-centric Apple TV go along with all of this as well. You could argue that the Apple TV is weak for a number of reasons, but again, just look at the storage. It currently offers 160 GB of storage on board. If you actually wanted that to be your one media hub going forward, it would be a joke. I would need about five Apple TVs to store all my video content just right now.

Instead, I stream it from my desktop machine. And I would love to replace that desktop machine with the cloud.

Have you noticed that iTunes doesn’t show you how big TV show files are? At one point, they did. I imagine there are two reasons why they don’t now.

First, Apple likes to keep things as simple as possible. You shouldn’t see the size of the files you’re downloading because it shouldn’t matter. But that’s the thing here. It absolutely does matter. If I buy four seasons of a TV show in HD, I could max out my hard drive without even realizing it. That’s very un-Apple-like.

Second, those numbers are extremely daunting. 30 GB for a TV series? Ugh. (Interestingly enough, they still show the file sizes for movies.)

All of this hasn’t mattered for music because the file sizes are so much smaller. Your computer can almost always store all of your songs with no problem. For most users, their iPods or even iPhones can store all their songs. That’s not the case with these video files. And that’s why the cloud is so important going forward. For music, it will be convenient. For videos, it will be vital.

And perhaps that’s why the cloud music team Apple purchased is working on video.

[images: Warner Brothers]