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Apple rivals DVD with new iTunes Extras for movies and albums

The new iTunes 9 offers special "iTunes Extras" as free downloads with the purchase of "iTunes LP" albums or movies. The new free bonus content is delivered as a self-contained website of bonus materials, making it easy to author.

Apple's new move into bonus materials helps to enrich its media downloads, making iTunes digital albums more attractive to purchase as a complete set and positioning its movies better against the bonus features available on DVDs. Apple has offered simple PDF digital booklets with certain albums in the past, a step the new Extras builds upon. The DVD Forum has attempted to deliver DVD-A its own specification for value-added music albums, and Blu-Ray has similarly floated an audio version of the format, but along with SA-CD and other attempts to improve upon the CD, these efforts have all fizzled.

Previously referred to under the Cocktail codename, Apple's new initiative delivers a single .ite file along with standard purchased album tracks or the movie file. The iTunes Extra file is actually a bundle, which is directory of files masquerading as a single file. Inside the bundle are navigation pages built using web-standards including HTML pages, Javascript code and CSS presentation, along with content folders containing regular PNG graphics, AAC audio and H.264 video files. The package is essentially a self-contained website, although its FairPlay content requires iTunes 9 to view.

The ease of building this Extras content should help popularize the new bonus materials, and a quick review of the iTunes Store shows a variety of artists' albums and movie titles sporting the new bonus materials. Unlike earlier attempts to create a super CD format, iTunes doesn't require anything more than a software update to the free version 9 in order to play the new Extras content.

The newly unveiled Cocktail initiative may help explain why Apple hasn't thrown much effort behind developing its DVD authoring tools recently, and why it has pointedly ignored the Blu-Ray authoring market. DVD authoring requires participating in a licensing program that includes a book of authoring specifications.

Apple Shuns DVD and Blu-Ray Authoring

Apple entered the DVD authoring business when it bought Astarte in 2000, resulting in DVD Studio Pro and the consumer-oriented iDVD title. It then bought Spruce Technologies and released that company's authoring tools as DVD Studio Pro 2.0. Since the 4.x release in early 2006, Apple has done little to update the program, which still ships as part of Final Cut Studio. The iDVD portion of iLife has similarly only received the barest of attention over the last few years.

While Apple updated its DVD authoring tools to support changes required to create HD-DVD discs, it never threw its support being the format, which has since collapsed after a protracted battle against the rival Blu-Ray specification. Similarly, despite being a member of the Blu-Ray Disk Association, Apple hasn't released authoring tools for that format either. Apple recently added raw Blu-Ray disc burning support to Final Cut Studio, but this lacks any capacity to actually author navigation; the resulting Blu-Ray disc just contains plain video. This is commonly used to distribute edited work for review. Third party tools are required to author a fancy user interface for finished Blu-Ray discs targeted at consumers.

The Blu-Ray specification uses navigation and content presentation tools based upon Sun's Java, called BD-J, to both frame the video and any interactive bonus content on the disc. It is also designed to enable accessing the Internet to find additional content published after the disc was shipped. Different Blu-ray players support different minimal versions of the BD-J, and the BD-J runtime results in significant hardware requirements (similar to a low end PC) which have priced Blu-Ray players out of the mainstream of the market.

Apple's Competitive Cocktail

By offering easy to create, standards-based bonus content that does not require complex and convoluted authoring tools, Apple appears to be hoping to convert more users from DVD disc buyers to iTunes download customers. While downloaded videos can't match the quality of Blu-Ray movies, the mass market has still not embraced the Blu-ray format, leaving Apple with a large market to address.

Presenting iTunes Extras on Apple TV, and potentially on mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPod touch, may also follow as Apple builds out its efforts to popularize albums and movies with the bonus materials.

For both movies and albums, iTunes Extras also differentiate Apple's own offerings in iTunes from identical content sold by other content distributors, such as Amazon.