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i on DVD: Apple Debuts DVD Strategy

Philip De Lancie
May 2001

By the time DVD was launched in 1997, it was already clear that whatever chance Apple Computer once had of dominating the mainstream computing desktop had long since been frittered away. And realization of that fact was shaking confidence within Macintosh strongholds in the creative community, as well. It seemed at the time that DVD provided a welcome opportunity to reassert the Mac as a must-have platform for media development. But over the intervening years, Apple's determination to seize this opportunity has turned out to be uncertain at best.

Hopes were raised that the company was finally ready to make DVD a priority when Apple announced at NAB 2000 that it was acquiring the intellectual property–along with some key personnel–of Astarte Software AG. But the company was mum about its intentions, and it wasn't until the San Francisco Macworld in January that it began to open up. Among the products debuted at the show were two software applications for DVD authoring and a Macintosh with a built-in DVD-R/CD-RW drive.

Driving Toward DVD

For some time now, Apple has made DVD-ROM drives a standard feature of some–though not all–Macs. Both the PowerMac G4 Cube and the PowerBook G4 currently ship with DVD-ROM. Machines in the popular iMac line come with either DVD-ROM or CD-ROM drives depending on the model, as do the iBook portables. On some Macs, DVD-RAM drives have also been available as a build-to-order option.

Apple's latest step forward in this direction is a new combination CD-RW/ DVD-R drive dubbed SuperDrive. Along with Compaq's MyMovie Studio 2000, the SuperDrive-equipped G4 marks the first commercial availability of the new Version 2 650nW consumer DVD-R drive, which companies like Pioneer have slated for release as a peripheral at mid-year.

For the time being, you can only get SuperDrive with one model of Macintosh, the new top-of-the-line 733mHz Power Macintosh G4. The other new G4 desktop systems announced at Macworld ship with CD-RW drives, which may be replaced with DVD-ROM drives when ordered from the Apple store.

According to Mike Evangelist, Apple's senior DVD product line manager, the decision to limit the SuperDrive to the 733mHz G4 was "based on extensive customer feedback and research which showed that relatively few people were using their desktop Macs for DVD playback, but that they would definitely like to use it for writing CDs." Evangelist adds that "the story is dramatically different for portable computers, where DVD playback is one of the key applications."

Another possible explanation is that production on the new drives is still ramping up, and that Apple can only get a limited number from its suppliers, so it has decided, not unreasonably, to allocate them to the most expensive Macs. In any case, Evangelist anticipates that inclusion of DVD-R writing capability will filter down the product line as the drives become more commonplace. "It's all a function of cost," he says. "[Apple CEO] Steve Jobs has said that, by early next year, he expects the DVD-R drives to reach price levels that make it possible to include them in consumer machines."

SlowTime

If SuperDrive is the good news, Apple's continued foot-dragging in adding DVD-Video support to QuickTime is the bad. "We can't really talk about what future versions of QuickTime might do," Evangelist says. "But, as of today, QuickTime, including the public Beta of Version 5, does not support DVD playback. The DVD playback mechanism on the Macintosh today is the Apple DVD Player."

Unfortunately, Apple DVD Player always plays movies in its own separate window. With Windows machines (minimum Windows 98 and Internet Explorer 5), it's possible to use either the DirectShow API or the MSWebDVD ActiveX control to play back DVD-Video content embedded in a Web page, and to control the playback of a DVD in the drive from a Web page. The inability to do the same on a Mac has already been a problem for a couple of years now, and it's become a real sore point for everyone trying to achieve cross-platform DVD-Web integration.

"We're aware that some people want to do this," Evangelist says, "and we certainly see how this might be useful. And we know the Apple DVD Player architecture, as it is today, is not perfect. So we're looking at how we might enhance the player in the future to address this, working with companies like InterActual and Zuma to find the best way. But there isn't anything specific that I can talk about today. As for how QuickTime fits into that, I couldn't say."

Eclipsed by Streaming?

The issue of DVD-Web integration reflects poorly on the Macintosh's status as a cutting-edge platform for multimedia, and contributes to the perception that there are now many things one can do on a PC but not on a Mac. But Apple certainly hasn't been alone in giving networking a higher priority than physical media over the last few years. So one wonders if the company's historical ambivalence toward DVD might simply reflect a general concern that the format would soon be eclipsed by purely electronic delivery media. Evangelist, however, says that's not the case.

"We're big proponents of streaming video here at Apple," he says. "So we would certainly agree that, as the pipes get bigger, there is a huge trend towards putting all kinds of content on a distributed media like the 'Net. But you have to have pretty big pipes to get even moderate quality. In the corporate world, and certainly in the home world, it's going to be a long time before the pipes are big enough to accommodate this kind of stuff. So in the relatively short and mid-term, there isn't anything that can affordably deliver the kind of capacity and quality that you can get off a DVD, where you can easily have two hours of very high-quality video on a $10 disc."

Aside from quality, Evangelist sees portability as another asset for DVD. "Even when the pipes are big enough," he says, "there's still going to be a demand for self-contained, high-quality media transport. And DVD is the name of that today. You can take a DVD anywhere, and you don't have to have elaborate network connections set up in advance. The self-contained, put-it-on-a-shelf nature of DVD is very attractive to a lot of our customers."

Asked for examples of areas outside of feature-film home-video releases where DVD will likely hold its appeal, Evangelist starts with the corporate market. "We think that a really important market for our DVD tools is the delivery of corporate sales messages," he says. "A company puts their sales presentation on a DVD, and salespeople take it on the road and play it back on laptops, or they play it in conference-room DVD players. It's totally impractical to expect to do that kind of thing over any kind of network, because you just don't control that situation."

Another promising area is videography. "DVD is going to be really popular for wedding or event videography," he says. "In many cases, a single DVD will be the end-product, and it would be delivered to a customer who participated in a particular event. And that is also something where they would definitely want it to be self-contained, not connected to anything else."

A Two-tiered Approach

To bolster the Mac's role in creating DVD for these types of applications, Apple has debuted two authoring applications: DVD Studio Pro–based on Astarte's DVDirector–and the all-new iDVD. "They're designed to address two different kinds of users," Evangelist says. "DVD Studio Pro can do almost everything that the DVD spec allows. iDVD, on the other hand, can take video and still pictures, and put them on a disc with menus. That's all. We started by asking, 'What's the absolute easiest way possible to put video and stills on a DVD?' iDVD is our answer."

Evangelist says iDVD is targeted toward not only hobbyists with DV camcorders, but also some professional users. "They have video to deliver in a high quality, easily accessible way," he says, "but they don't want to have to think at all about what sort of structure the disc needs to have. And they don't need motion menus, multiple languages, subtitles, and so forth." Evangelist is particularly pleased with iDVD's built-in MPEG-2 encoder, which he claims is far faster than other available software encoders. "In the past," he says, "people would buy hardware encoders simply because they didn't have the time to wait for a software encoder. Now it's feasible even for pretty high-volume users to use the software. If somebody wants to put an hour of video on a disc, we can do it in 2 1/2 hours, including burning."

iDVD's emphasis on ease-of-use will naturally lead to comparisons with other low-end authoring tools such as DVDit! and MyDVD from Sonic Solutions, and SpruceUp from Spruce Technologies. "Conceptually, DVDit! and iDVD are quite similar in terms of overall capabilities," Evangelist says. "But I think we've achieved an even greater ease of use. Any editing application that can save QuickTime, which is essentially all of them, can be used to create source material. We also have what we call Themes, which are templates for setting up the design, and we think they are really beautiful. And, of course, you can customize them if you want."

Whatever its relative merits, iDVD isn't really in direct competition with the other programs, because–like iMovie, Apple's popular consumer-level video editing software–it is available only as preinstalled software on some models of Macs. Unlike iMovie, however, iDVD isn't available on consumer machines at all, an odd situation for what is essentially a "prosumer" application.

"iDVD was created as the sort of enabling software for our DVD-R drive," Evangelist explains. "So if we configure a system with a SuperDrive, it'll have iDVD. If you don't have the drive, the application doesn't even run." For now, that means iDVD is only available on the 733mHz G4, which greatly limits its potential impact.

DVD Studio Pro

While iDVD comes preinstalled, DVD Studio Pro is a separate packaged application ($999 list). It includes the same encoder as iDVD, but as a QuickTime export component, which adds a menu item to applications (including Final Cut Pro and QuickTime Player) that allows them to save to MPEG-2. Because the encoder runs only on the G4 CPU, Apple's requirements for DVD Studio Pro specify a G4 machine. However, the authoring software is designed to work with any DVD-compliant MPEG video stream, regardless of the encoder used. According to Evangelist, that means that the core DVD Studio Pro authoring program will actually run on G3 machines, as well.

Evangelist sees DVD Studio Pro as picking up where iDVD leaves off. "Professionals using iDVD may reach a point where they need to add more sophisticated features to their DVDs, like multiple languages or subtitles," he says. "Then they can move to DVD Studio Pro. The target market is anybody who is doing video professionally, where the end result currently is tape."

While DVD Studio Pro includes near- total support for the DVD specification, it's not designed to compete with high-end systems such as Daikin Scenarist, Sonic DVD Creator, or Spruce DVDMaestro. "I don't see Hollywood studios using DVD Studio Pro," Evangelist says. "The toolset is more tailored to somebody who's coming from a video-editing realm, rather than a motion picture production realm. It's especially targeted at people who are not specialists in DVD."

One specific example of how the high-end tools are different, Evangelist says, is that they "tend to incorporate a timeline-based approach so that they can almost do non-linear editing. Our approach is that DVD Studio Pro is for assembling material that you've already created elsewhere." That means you can't incorporate simply a portion of a video file rather than the whole thing.

DVD Studio Pro also does not offer the sophisticated control over video encoding that one gets with high-end systems that include multipass encoders and segment-based re-encoding. "We're aimed at somebody who wants to move the slider to a bit rate and encode it," he says. "If it doesn't look as good as they hoped, they'll do it over again at a higher bit-rate."

Positioned in the mid-range, DVD Studio Pro goes up against programs like Daikin's ReelDVD, Spruce's DVD Virtuoso, and Sonic's DVD Fusion (the only one of those three available for Macintosh). Assessing the competition, Evangelist asserts that when a company sells high-end application software, it "can't put everything in a thousand-dollar package. So these other applications leave things out. But we don't have that same burden. We've tried to include the full power of the DVD spec–at least, the vast majority of it."

DVD Studio Pro does not support parental control. And the program's use of an abstraction layer means that only eight of the possible 16 general parameters allowed by the standard are actually available to the author. Otherwise, however, the feature list is remarkably complete for a package in its price range. "We have full support for pre- and post-commands," Evangelist says. "We have things like 16:9 support, all three levels of Macrovision, full multi-angle, full audio tracks, region coding, CSS, and DLT support, including DVD-9."

Opening Up DVD

Evangelist is enthusiastic about Apple's new DVD offerings. "Between the DVD Studio Pro software and the introduction of affordable recorders and media, I think this is really going to be a big change," he says. "It's going to open up DVD to a lot of people."

As for how DVD fits into Apple's current vision of itself, Evangelist refers to the notion–outlined by Jobs in his Macworld keynote–that the Mac can be at the center of a so-called "digital lifestyle," allowing everybody to "take advantage of tools that they already have in a more exciting way." One opportunity to make this abstract concept concrete, he says, is in the field of video. "Home users and professionals have their DV cameras and their DV editing systems, and they're producing high-quality material. But, in the past, it has been turned into VHS tapes that look terrible. We want to allow that wide range of users to have the ability to make DVDs, and to deploy their video material on inexpensive players."

Evangelist adds that another aspect of Apple's attention to DVD relates back specifically to the Mac's standing among creative professionals. "We want the Macintosh to be absolutely the preferred platform for any kind of creative endeavor," he says. "We know that creative professionals like Macintoshes, but we can't just sit here because they happened to like Macintoshes yesterday. We have to make sure they like them tomorrow, too, by delivering the best solutions for doing the things that they want–or will want–to do."


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Apple Computer, Inc.
1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; 408/996-1010; http://www.applecomputer.com

Daikin US Comtec Laboratories
999 Grant Avenue, Novato, CA 94945; 415/893-7800; Fax 415/893-7807; http://www.daikindvd.com

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc.
2265 E. 220th Street, Long Beach, CA 90810; 800/527-3766, 310/952-2111; Fax 310/952-2990; http://www.pioneerusa.com

Sonic Solutions
101 Rowland Way, Novato, CA 94945; 888/766-4248, 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; http://www.sonic.com

Spruce Technologies, Inc.
1054 S. DeAnza Boulevard, Suite 200, San Jose, CA 95129; 888/255-6734, 408/861-2200; Fax 408/863-9701; http://www.spruce-tech.com



Philip De Lancie (pdel@compuserve.com) is a freelance writer on media production and format, and co-author of the book DVD Productionfrom Focal Press.

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