Here’s some interesting news from AppleInsider. They are reporting that it appears as if Apple is getting market research to gauge interest in purchasing and downloading movies online. One interesting aspect is that the survey speculates whether or not people would be interested in subscribing to a service with a $9.99 monthly fee that would net the user unlimited downloads (minus DVD burning capabilities) or whether or not the user would be interested in a $12.95 per movie cost to burn the movie to DVD.

There are so many things to comment on here. The first is the most obvious, that Apple is apparently looking at a monthly subscription rate for the first time ever in the history of iTunes. However, this is also the time where it seems to make the most sense. Paying $9.99 per movie would be almost ludicrous for the lower quality and feature rate of an online download. Now, as a monthly fee with unlimited downloads, this is a price point that consumers and the motion picture industry can probably agree on. It does raise an interesting concern, however. WMP-based MP3 players that subscribe to services like Napster are required to connect to the computer on a regular basis to verify that the user is still subscribed. Likely, Apple would need to require something similar in this instance. This is an unfortunate side effect of subscription-based services.

Piracy is probably a moot point in all this. The level of quality from a download is not going to be enough to compare with downloads that already exist online and the cost to purchase a movie that can be burned to DVD is comparable to that of a DVD purchased in a store. Piracy is no better or worse a factor than it was before, which would satisfy the desires of the motion picture industry.

Also interesting to note is the list of movies that would be offered. The first thing I noticed about the list were that the movies were not of things that have been offered on DVD recently. There are no movies listed that were released on DVD in 2006 and most were from the early part of 2005. This makes me wonder when this survey was put together. I don’t doubt the veracity of the survey, but it does make me stop and wonder why. I don’t have a good theory as to why this is. As far as the studios involved in this, AppleInsider points out Miramax, Buena Vista, Universal, New Line Cinema and Sony Pictures appear to be involved just based on the list of titles there. Miramax, Buena Vista and Universal all jive with companies already committed to iTunes. New Line Cinema is owned by Time Warner and Sony Pictures is obviously owned by Sony. Absent from the list are 20th Century Fox, the Viacom studios, Paramount and Dreamworks and other independent studios like Lion’s Gate and Magnolia, although the only thing we can truly discern from the list is that it is obviously incomplete and thus we can’t possibly know what other studios may be involved.

Finally, what can we learn from a potential timeframe here? Well, online surveys are typically run in one of two ways. Either they are trying to gauge market response for a particular product they may launch or that they will launch. It’s usually pretty easy to spot the differences in the two. If it’s a product that they are uncertain about launching, it typically will have very vague descriptions and will attempt to gauge reaction to multiple possibilties from the survey taker. If the product is already being prepped for launch, they will typically be looking for information about things like package design, response to advertising, price points, and so on. Based on this, I would have to say that Apple is really far down the road with this and they are not just trying to determine whether or not this is a project they should pursue.

So, just how far along is Apple with this? Well, these types of surveys tend to occur relatively late in a product development cycle and not very far from product launch, usually a few months. After all, as time goes on, people’s opinions change based on comparable products from competitors and a company generally wishes to launch with as accurate a data response set as possible. Let’s say, just for example, that Microsoft were to release a movie download service at a $6.99/month price point between now and when Apple launched their service. Suddenly, price point data submitted by the survey takers would no longer be valid.

To give a comparable example for timeframe, surveys about DVD launches (for example, trying to find out if packaging is appealing) typically occur shortly after the movie is released in theaters. This gives the company sufficient time to go through their findings and make any necessary changes prior to beginning production and distribution of the DVDs.

So, when is Apple really going to be releasing the iTunes Movie Store? Well, the upcoming 30th Apple Anniversary in April is probably way too early. You wouldn’t be submitting surveys a month before product launch. Not enough time. The WWDC in June isn’t really the kind of event you’d launch something like this at and will likely be reserved for the last of the Intel-based computers (the G5 replacement, probably) and maybe Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Besides, to launch something like this you need a new iPod: one with improved screen resolution, hard drive capacity and longer battery life. So, maybe we should look at the iPod development cycle. The current 5G iPod was released in October 2006 and Apple usually leaves an iPod out there for at least a year. So, I’d say that the earliest we could see an iPod Movie Store would be in October. This actually makes perfect sense. It’s right before Christmas and it’s towards the end of the iPod development cycle. It would be the perfect time to release the companion iTunes Movie Store.

So, perhaps I could be made out for a fool for going out on a limb here, but barring any unusual developments, I would expect an iTunes Movie Store sometime around October of this year. It just makes the most logical business sense to me.

But, please, no hate mail if I’m wrong, OK?

UPDATE: Think Secret has some more information on this subject.

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