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Apple executives dodge data center, FaceTime questions in earnings call


As usual, Apple's executives kept close to a carefully prepared script on the company's stellar financial results, being careful not to reveal too much about the company's future plans, including its data center cloud services and broader open support for FaceTime video calling.

When asked about progress on the company's $1 billion data center being built in North Carolina, Peter Openheimer only said, "North Carolina is on schedule. Everything is going fine."

"We expect to complete it by the end of the calendar year, and begin to use it," Openheimer added when asked for details on the project's schedule.

Nothing else slipped about the new 500,000 square foot project, which is five times larger than the company's current data center in Newark, California. The new center is expected to be used to expand the company's rapidly growing iTunes music, apps, and iBooks stores as well as handling its online cloud services such as MobileMe.

The new data center is also rumored to be related to Apple's years old project code named iTunes Replay, an effort to deliver media streaming of users' own content to their mobile devices directly from Apple's servers, allowing them to watch movies and TV and listen to music from any device without having to store large download files.

Such a service is also rumored to support a new low cost, iOS-based replacement to Apple TV, enabling a diskless device that streams content from the cloud rather than storing and syncing download files locally. Having the project completed at the end of the year suggests that Apple may launch the service early next year.

Apple isn't interested in talking about it because the company faces the potential for competition in direct media streaming from Google and others. Additionally, a consortium of companies including Sony, Samsung, Nokia, Adobe, Cisco, HP, Toshiba, Microsoft and Intel are backing a new DRM scheme called UltraViolet that is intended to allow users to stream protected content to mobile devices from the cloud.

Déjà vu-RM: Apple vs UltraViolet

Apple isn't affiliated with UltraViolet, which will apparently prevent the new content from working with the installed base of 100 million iOS devices sold, including the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Apple's close ally Disney is also refraining to join the program, which is being supported by other big studios including NBC Universal, Fox, Paramount, and Warner Bros.

Microsoft's previous efforts to build a consortium around its PlaysForSure music DRM (which was supported by many of the same hardware makers, including Sony, Samsung, Nokia and Toshiba, as well as the music studios) failed after consumers selected Apple's iPod and iTunes (which didn't support PlaysForSure) over devices and music stores affiliated with the PlaysForSure logo.

Microsoft started over in 2007 with PlayReady, a recycled version of the company's DRM-consortium efforts based on Silverlight. While supported by mobile giant Nokia and others, the PlayReady format is similarly not supported by Apple's iPod and iOS devices and therefore failed to gain much traction. The growth of media DRM supported by Adobe's Flash platform has similarly been thwarted on mobile devices because Apple's iOS does not support Flash.

Sony also failed in its short-lived attempt to create its own ATRAC DRM system branded Connect, which sold protected media files that only worked on Windows PCs and Sony hardware including the PSP and some Sony Ericsson phones.

Real Networks similarly floated its own DRM scheme named Helix Harmony that attempted to become popular by promising compatibility with iPod users, but Apple blocked the system from working on its devices. That move enabled Apple to push studios toward DRM-free tracks, as there was no remaining DRM system they could use to sell music that could be played back by the crucial market of iPod users.

No time for FaceTime

Another topic Apple executives didn't want to discuss was the future of FaceTime, a primary feature of iPhone 4. Currently, FaceTime only works between iPhone 4 users, but chief executive Steve Jobs said Apple would release the specification openly for other companies to adopt. It's also widely expected that Apple will add FaceTime compatibility with its desktop iChat AV program, enabling Mac users to initiate video calls with iPhone 4.

When asked about how and when Apple planned to release FaceTime as an open standard, and whether the company would support FaceTime calls from Windows PCs and Macs, chief operations officer Tim Cook said he wanted to focus on financial questions in order to make sure those were all answered.

"Punting that one for another day," Cook replied.