On Sept. 12, Apple Computer (AAPL ) CEO Steve Jobs took the unusual step of previewing new hardware months before it will ship. Dubbed iTV, it's a $299 gadget that can wirelessly transfer movies, music, and other digital media from the iTunes library on your PC or Mac to a high-definition TV. Fans say iTV could be the missing link that finally brings downloaded entertainment straight to your TV. Critics say Jobs displayed a half-baked product to preempt the competition. We eavesdropped on an exchange between two of our guys who sort such things out for a living, Tech & You columnist Steve Wildstrom and consumer electronics correspondent Cliff Edwards:
Steve: You were there when Steve Jobs previewed iTV. What did you think?
Cliff: My take is, it could be great -- with a lot of "ifs." Apple now has powerful Intel (INTC ) chips and iTunes, the best software for organizing digital entertainment. The interface for the new iTV is a remote control and on-screen graphics that a grandmother could understand, and it works with both Windows and Mac computers. Simply put, if Apple can deliver what it demo'd, it trumps every offering out there.
Steve: Forgive my skepticism, but this is all on the come. It could be really important, assuming it delivers what is promised, works simply, meets Hollywood's demands for content protection, etc. But the devil is in the details. Devices of this sort are called digital media adapters, and I think I have tried every one of them. I have yet to see one that I would buy, or even use if it was given to me.
Cliff: People might call this vaporware because it was announced so far ahead of when it will be sold. Personally, I think Apple did that to blunt criticism that its new movie-download service does not let you burn DVDs or do anything but watch on a PC or tiny iPod screen. Apple hopes you come away from this event with the impression that you can buy movies to your heart's content and, in time, enjoy them on TV.
Steve: The real issue is how you get the content from the PC or Mac running iTunes to the iTV, which is off somewhere else in your house. Apple would like you to just connect this $299 box to your big digital television and you could stream the movies you have downloaded from your PC or Mac. But it's a huge question whether you can connect this stuff wirelessly.
Cliff: True enough. The box does have an Ethernet jack for the best connectivity, but Apple seems to be depending on 802.11n, a next-generation Wi-Fi standard. And let's say that you bought this device a few months from now. It's not even clear whether you could start watching movies right away. Jobs says it will take 30 minutes to download a movie if you have a 5-megabyte Internet connection. That ignores the fact that most DSL customers get nowhere near that. And Apple right now is only promising "near-DVD quality" for movie downloads. You can bet purists will notice the difference when watching on a pricey big-screen HDTV.
Steve: The claim that you can start playing an iTV movie five minutes after you start downloading it from the Net might be true -- in Korea, but not on any U.S. broadband system I know of. I think 802.11n, when it's available, will work for standard-definition video. But high-definition is what this game is about, and nothing works for HD. The bandwidth requirements are huge. Worse, Hollywood's relentless demand for content protection has created systems that make it difficult to connect digital HD devices with cables and all but impossible to do so wirelessly. Apple clearly intends to do HD because it demonstrated HD content, but I'm mystified as to how.
I've learned not to underestimate Apple, but the laws of physics have to be dealt with -- even in the reality-distortion field that makes you believe everything Steve Jobs says while he's on that stage.