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Visions of a Disc-less World

The annual Apple Macworld conference kicked off in San Francisco, Tuesday, Jan. 15, with CEO Steve Jobs unveiling an ultra small laptop and iTunes movie rentals you can download without using a computer.

The only holdouts are movies. Online movie sales have been a bust so far. In Tuesday's keynote, Jobs said the 7 million movies that sold via iTunes "did not meet our expectations" -- and Apple has one of the smoothest movie-download systems around. In comparison, there have been 4 billion iTunes music downloads.

For its second stab at the movie problem, Apple is offering rentals. New releases will rent for $3.99 each, with back-catalogue releases at $2.99 each. You'll have 30 days to start watching them, then 24 hours to finish. Apple has signed every major movie studio for the venture.

The iTunes Store has about 1,000 titles for rent, and more than 100 high-definition movies, which rent for a dollar extra.

The updated Apple TV is a huge part of this revived movie download strategy. It will let customers browse, pay for, download and watch movies without touching a computer, keyboard or mouse. And at $229 ( $329 for a higher-capacity version), it beats the price of a Blu-ray player, Hollywood's favored high-definition movie player.

Apple TV, like the version introduced last year to disappointing sales, can also play digital music and videos stored on your computer, display your digital photo albums and even play YouTube clips off the Internet. All those features leave even fewer reasons to take a disc out of a case in the living room.

However, conditions attached to these movie rentals could end up being restrictive enough to snuff out the whole thing. It amounts to a very short-term rental; offline video-rental deals don't allow just a day to watch a movie. Also, the copy controls attached to each rental prevent it from being viewed with anything but Apple software.

Worst of all, the new HD rentals are imprisoned inside the Apple TV. You can download them only to one of those boxes and can't move them to an iPod or a computer.

Hollywood just can't seem to make movie downloads easy for consumers to use. It has to impose just enough nitpicking limits to keep users wondering if they wouldn't be happier sticking with DVDs.

The best hope for disc-free movie viewing may be a replay of Apple's history with digital music. When iTunes was launched, it had a limited inventory and copy controls. But once the music companies got over their initial fears about pirating, the store enlarged its catalogue. The result is that a lot of people won't think of going anywhere but the Internet for music.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro Read more at

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