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In South Korea, You Download a Movie Faster

Technology Review reports that there are technical reasons holding back Apple's launch of movie downloads, but it has nothing to do with the iTunes platform or iPod device constraints. Whether a consumer has a dialup or a broadband connection, it takes only a few minutes to download a song from iTunes. In contrast, the Lord of the Rings trilogy would be several thousand times larger -- yet have to be downloaded at the same rate.

Choosing a file format carefully can mitigate the problem, but only somewhat. Apple owns the QuickTime format, whose latest QuickTime 7 Pro version, includes the H.264 compression/decompression standard, which is also used in the new generation of Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. It compresses data into a much smaller space than the MPEG-2 codec used on DVDs.

As a result, a DVD-quality movie rendered in H.264 will take up half as much room on a disk drive and be twice as quick to download. (The H.264 standard is also designed to allow viewing at many different scales, from low resolution for 3G cell phones and video iPods to high-definition versions with 1,080 lines of vertical resolution.)

But the HD movie trailers that Apple currently offers on its website still weigh in at more than 100 megabytes. And even with H.264 compression, an entire movie would amount to well over one gigabyte and take an entire evening to download at the 1.5-megabits-per-second maximum cable or DSL modem speed available to most Internet users in the United States -- which lags far behind many other developed nations in the capacity of its "broadband" links to residences -- The average South Korean household, for example, has 10-megabit-per-second access to the Internet.

"This is one of the reasons why there's no activity taking place" in movie downloads, says Frank Casanova, director of QuickTime Product Marketing at Apple. With a 1.5-gigabyte movie file, "you could request a movie from Netflix [which delivers DVDs by mail] before this download gets to you."

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