iTunes Movie Rentals: It’s the Usability, Stupid

One of the best things iTunes Store has going for it is usability, but the Movie Rentals section (which, basically, doesn’t exist) is simply broken. The categories don’t let you filter for rentable movies, so (as of writing) it’s almost impossible to find movies to rent unless you just choose popular picks or new releases.

Next, the iTunes Store suffers a major weakness relative to Netflix which isn’t so apparent when shopping for music, but is horrible when looking at movies. Here’s a clue: Coyote Ugly is rated 4.5 stars, and the only reason it’s 4.5 and not 5 is that a few people are annoyed at the nudity in the unrated version (which seems a bit like complaining a nature documentary is full of animals). Meanwhile, “An Inconvenient Truth” is rated 2.5 stars owing to a huge number of 1 star reviews from, basically, insane people. (Rating it 1 star doesn’t make you insane, saying that the scientists quoted in the film have been disowned by the majority of the scientific community and the claims have been disproven by NASA does.)

Basically, the movie reviews are of similar quality to the reviews on YouTube, which is to say horrible.

Now that iTunes is competing head-to-head with Netflix, Apple really needs to lift its game in the reviews department. Netflix’s reviews are very well done — they basically weight reviews by people with tastes similar to yours more strongly, and reviews by other folks less strongly.

It seems to me that Netflix is to video what iTunes is to music — a very successful business that is undermining the way that the content distributors prefer to do business. A person pays NetFlix $20 (or so)/month and sees all the movies he/she can be bothered to see. After a while he/she stops going to movies and largely stops buying DVDs. When my wife or I see an interesting trailer, we usually just add it to our Netflix queue — thus making the studio, what, $0.25? $0.10? I don’t know how much Netflix pays for a DVD (including rights to rent it out), how long a DVD lasts, whether Netflix pays full replacement cost for damaged DVDs, whether Netflix pays royalties per rental, etc. etc. but I can’t imagine it all adds up to much more than say 25% of the cost of a DVD divided by 20.

The apparent high participation of studios in iTunes rentals reflects the fact that the studios are going to earn FAR more from the iTunes rental model than from the Netflix rental model (or Blockbuster’s imitation). For now, the iTunes rental library is slated to be ~1000 movies by the end of the month; last time I checked NetFlix’s library was 60,000, and there’s plenty of stuff that hasn’t made it to DVD.

If and when there are 1000 or more movies to rent on iTunes, I don’t think anyone will be able to find them. E.g. if I type “Robert DeNiro” into the iTunes search widget, it doesn’t bring up “RONIN” — one of the current top rental titles. If I search for “Pixar” it doesn’t find any of Pixar’s feature films.

Improving iTunes Rentals

Obviously, you need to be able to filter for movies you can buy vs. rent. I imagine this will happen pretty soon.

Next, the search function seriously needs to be fixed, and it’s something an intern could probably do in a day or two (while the library is so small), but it will become a bigger deal as the library gets bigger.

Apple seems to be stuck with a broken user review system — but I guess on the positive side it can probably all be fixed in one place (just look at the way the same system works in apple.com/store). One of the major problems with this kind of review system is that lots of people treat the system as a way of giving feedback on the shopping experience or some random other thing (like price, or upgrade policy, or whether some other product they’ve gotten confused with this product was good). For movies or songs where the price and shopping experience are (generally) fixed, this is probably less of a concern.

Then there are obvious synergies — such as discounting the purchase of a movie you’ve just rented (the way they discount albums if you already own tracks). This kind of thing will let Apple compete with DVDs and Netflix in ways that don’t let them fight back.

It’s. The. Usability. Stupid.

So you have room for nine icons (almost) on your main screen. Do you (a) use one for a “clock” rather than, say, display the time somewhere in your utterly useless status bar and menu bar? (b) use one icon for a “clock” and another for “date and time” (given you’re already showing the date anyway)? (c) use a third icon for “calendar” because two just wasn’t enough? or (d) add a Windows 98-style gradient bar up the top to waste even more space? If you answered (d) you’re ready to design Open Source UIs and take on Apple in the consumer space.

I saw something pretty funny on Digg yesterday. The link didn’t work (which was a sign in itself) but googling got me this. Here’s the summary: real soon now™ there will be a Linux-based smart phone with 3G network support and a touch screen that does everything the iPhone does, only better, and runs Linux — sorry, GNU/Linux — and is totally, utterly open. So it will be better than the iPhone in every way.

Woohoo! At last I can use something other than my tin-foil hat to communicate with the mothership.

Here’s the problem. Aside from being “open” … pretty much any non crap cell phone does everything the iPhone does … at least to some extent, and is more “open” to third-party development. The iPhone isn’t different and better than those phones the way, say, a current MacBook Pro is better than say an Apple II. It’s better than those phones in the same way that a MacBook Pro (running Mac OS X) is better than a MacBook Pro (running GNU/Linux). When folks suggest Apple has a five year lead on rival cellphone companies, they mean that Apple’s software is five years ahead of rival cellphone software the way Mac OS X is ahead of, say, GNU/Linux. (Since GNU/Linux is actually about five years behind Windows, it’s more like an eight year lead on GNU/Linux.)

And the lead isn’t in features. Every computer is a Turing machine limited by finite RAM. The only fundamental difference in ultimate capabilities between any two computers is their peripherals and data capacity. The difference for users is in usability.

As my father used to say, “Chocolate is good. chicken is good. Chocolate-coated chicken must be excellent.” It works even better when both ingredients suck individually, right? Linux is a usability nightmare. Cellphones are a usability nightmare. But a Linux cellphone is going to rule! Kind of like Kentucky-fried chicken smothered in rancid chocolate.

Licensing iTunes/iPod Compatibility

Wouldn’t it be interesting if Apple allowed third parties to support iPod and iTunes right about now? Creative, Samsung, et al, must just be thrilled by the Zune announcement.

Or maybe just wait for Zune to come out, wait until Microsoft has spent a billion or two getting up to, say, 20% market share, and then do it.

Just a thought.

Zune!

I’m not exactly sure when the “Zune” products are coming out. Is it tomorrow? Or … October? It seems to me like Microsoft has just, effectively, told everyone shopping for a music player that they’d like you to buy a Microsoft music player … when it’s available, or an iPod if you want one now. Regardless, you should avoid buying anything with “PlaysForSure” since they’re guaranteed to screwed.

One of the writers for the Simpsons was (is) a fellow named George Meyer, who produced a newsletter named Army Man (“America’s Only Magazine”). One of the things he loves, according to a New Yorker profile, is products or statements which are lies in and of themselves (kind of like an oxymoron, but more blatant and not restricted to two words). Microsoft is a great purveyor of such products: “PlaysForSure” doesn’t, “Windows Genuine Advantage” isn’t, and so forth. (So is the Bush Administration: “Clean Skies”, “No Child Left Behind”, and so forth.)