Thursday, September 23, 2010

How Apple Will Stop Piracy

You heard it here first so please spread the word.
Apple is going to virtually eliminate the piracy (e.g., illegal file sharing) of music, movies, TV shows and e-books in the next few years. There are several inter-related developments at Apple that have made me reach this conclusion:
  1. A few weeks ago Steve Jobs unveiled the new Apple TV device. Now previous incarnations of Apple TV have not been very popular and even Jobs called it a "hobby". What is different about the new Apple TV from other DVR devices is that it has no file storage (i.e., no hard drive or solid state drive and no ability to connect a hard drive (via USB or Firewire). Movies or TV shows that you watch via the Apple TV must be streamed as rentals. 
  2. Apple is about to commission a huge new data centre in North Carolina. Now industry watchers don't know what Apple plans to do with this massive data centre. But all agree that it's much too big to be just for MobileMe, Apple's cloud storage and synchronisation service. Such a big investment means Apple has big plans for us.
  3. The iPad is often touted as the ideal computer for technophobes - the elderly in particular, and sales figures do show that elderly buy it. But to use the iPad you have to have another computer (Mac or PC) to sync it with using iTunes. If you buy an iPad and don't own (or have access to) another computer it's useless, you can't even get it registered to turn it on without connecting to iTunes. So the iPad can't be used as someone's only computer at the moment.
  4. The iPad's (and for that matter the iPhone's and iPod's) file system is locked down. That means you can't directly browse the file system to locate a locally stored music or movie file. Now lots of geeks criticise Apple for this and they jailbreak their devices so they can access the file system directly. However, for the majority of users this makes the devices easier to use. You don't need to know or even care where files are located. The apps that use them know where they are. 
So how do these things fit together? Well I think Apple's data centre is for "iTunes-in-the-cloud". If you can sync to iTunes-in-the-cloud then you won't need any other computer, so the iPad then truly become a great device for technophobes or people with no other computer. But you'll also be able to access your entire iTunes library from the cloud - all your music, movies, TV shows and e-books. Then Apple TV becomes the only device you'll need in your living room (apart from a TV). Moreover, your iPad and iPhone and iPods will also have access to all your media and data from anywhere on the planet, and with no need for local file storage these devices can become smaller, lighter and cheaper with longer battery life.
So how does this stop piracy? Well piracy happens because it is so easy to copy computer files. Anyone can easily rip a CD or DVD and give the resulting files to a friend or they can share them on peer-to-peer file sharing networks. But consider the situation in five years time when everyone is using iTunes-in-the-cloud. Everyone will be streaming their media and there will be no local copies of the files to be copied or file-shared. Piracy suddenly becomes very difficult for most people. Now obviously if something can be heard or seen it can be copied, but copying in this future becomes much more difficult and time consuming - as does playing back the copy if you only own an iPad or an Apple TV. Remember these devices have file systems that are closed to users so even if you know there is a movie file on your iPad you can't copy it and give it to somebody else.
Moreover, if this move to cloud storage and streaming is coupled with reasonably priced "all you can eat" deals for movie rentals, music and even e-books, then the incentive for piracy is further reduced. For example NetFlix offers unlimited streaming movies now for $8.99 a month and NetFlix is (not coincidentally) available via the Apple TV.
Further, there's no reason to assume that iTunes-in-the-cloud will just be limited to Apple devices, after all iTunes already runs on Windows, but it will appear first on Apple devices and my bet is it will be released with iOS 5.0 next year, when the big data centre is up and running.
Thus, Apple (almost) stops piracy and becomes the darling of the movie/music & publishing businesses.