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Make way, mainstream TV: Mobile video is on the move

The biggest problem Todd Boes has with his new video iPod is prying it away from his two oldest kids, ages 4 and 6.

''They'd much rather take the iPod up to their room and watch it than watch the big TV," says Boes, vice president of marketing at Maven Networks, a Cambridge start-up. They're partial to the Disney Channel hits ''That's So Raven" and ''The Suite Life of Zach and Cody," available from Apple's online store for $1.99 an episode.

Boes -- when he can get his hands on the device -- watches episodes of ''Lost," music videos from U2 and the Beastie Boys, and the odd video podcast, a low-budget snippet of personal video.

But as holiday shoppers evaluate Apple's new $299 video-capable iPod, the question hanging over the entertainment industry is whether the iPod can do for motion pictures what it did for music. Does its arrival signal a transition from the era of scheduled TV, DVDs, and videotapes to the age of Internet downloads?

Apple announced earlier this month that its customers have purchased (or downloaded for free) more than three million videos from its iTunes Music Store since October, when videos were added to the inventory. While the company hasn't divulged how many video-capable iPods, with their matchbook-sized screens, it has sold, the device's arrival has ignited real curiosity -- and debate -- in the worlds of TV, film, and especially home-grown video.

''Until the video iPod, there hadn't been a hit device that would let you play video," says Karl Quist, president of TotalVid, a Web-based marketplace for video. ''You had earlier devices released like the Sony PlayStation Portable, and the Portable Media Center from Microsoft. But Apple made the category cool."

The iPod's strength, so far, is how easy it is to load it with video downloaded from the iTunes Music Store; as usual, Apple has made simplicity paramount.

But there are plenty of negatives, too, starting with the Lilliputian display. Cambridge venture capitalist Todd Dagres, who owns a video iPod, says that ''no one over 17 years old" would want to watch a movie on a 2 1/2-inch screen. Quist says he tried it, loading the film ''The Interpreter" onto his iPod and toting it along on a cross-country flight.

''It gave me a headache, and then the battery died partway through the movie," he says.

The content available legally is still limited. No one's yet selling full-length films to the public for the device, and the iTunes Music Store offers a motley assortment of TV shows from ABC and NBC (including ''Desperate Housewives" and vintage ''Dragnet" episodes), along with music videos and short animated films from Pixar. For free, there are clips from WGBH's ''American Experience" series and plenty of unusual offerings, like ''The Bollywood Report," which tracks the Indian motion picture industry, or ''90 Seconds of Dave," a video podcast. There's not nearly the breadth of content -- yet -- that Apple offers in the music aisles of its store.

Big media conglomerates are also worried about what happens to their businesses if consumers start purchasing everything a la carte -- and without advertising. Alexander Cohen, the chief executive of, a San Francisco site that presents short films, adds that there's also anxiety about cannibalizing the sales of DVDs.

''Movie studios and TV networks are so addicted to DVD sales, it's like a heroin problem," says Cohen. DVD sales and revenues for feature films, according to Digital Entertainment Group, accounted for $21.4 billion last year -- about twice what studios make at the box office.

Apple's video iPod competes with similar devices, like Creative's Zen video player, Sony's PlayStation Portable, and handheld video players from Archos, a French company. Archos's devices have features the iPod can't match, like the ability to create video podcasts using a camera accessory or to link with a television set to record shows being broadcast, much like a TiVo digital video recorder.

''You've got to recognize where video lives today," says Larry Smith, chief operating officer of Archos. ''That's the TV set. We wanted to let you get the TV you already paid for, for free."

A new crop of portable video players will be introduced next month at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And Apple's iTunes Music Store will face new competitors like Google, which aims to start selling videos soon.

Even though the entertainment industry is heading inexorably toward a business model built on delivering bits, rather than physical media like CDs and DVDs, the consensus is that this first-generation of devices, including the video iPod, won't spark an instant jump-cut to a world of downloaded video.

''I don't think this version of the video iPod will have much impact on media consumption," says Bob Davis, who was the founding chief executive of Lycos and is now a venture capitalist at Highland Capital Partners in Lexington. But eventually, Davis says, devices will appear with larger screens, the ability to download content from the Net wirelessly, and the ability to sync up with a TiVo-like device sitting atop a TV. Dagres, the venture capitalist with Spark Capital, has even tried out a pair of specially designed glasses from Westwood-based MicroOptical that can connect to the iPod. They make the image size seem much larger than it would on the iPod's screen by projecting it directly onto the lens of the glasses.

''I've worn them on two different occasions," he says, ''and each time, people have offered to buy them on the spot."

Those sorts of advances will likely help make mobile video, delivered over the Net, part of the mainstream entertainment scene. But Apple isn't guaranteed to dominate, as it has with music.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at Learn more about portable video players at If you have a video iPod, download free episodes of Pro Shop TV at

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