By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 30, 2008

Sometimes you have to listen very closely when Steve Jobs promises something.

When Apple’s (AAPL) CEO introduced movie rentals at Macworld two weeks ago, he demonstrated how films downloaded through iTunes could be sent with one click to an iPod, iPhone or iPod touch.

Then, according to my notes, he said something about “current generation iPods.”

Those three words have got a lot of people on Apple’s discussion boards hopping mad today. It turns out that fifth-generation video iPods purchased as recently as five months ago won’t play those iTunes movie rentals — and not because of any hardware deficiency. Current generation iPods, per the footnote in Apple’s press release here, include only the “iPod classic, iPod nano with video and iPod touch.”

“This is bogus!!!!!” writes user ninzan on one of at least a half-dozen threads devoted to the topic. “I was all up on apple rental now that I find out that I have been locked out i feel like a moronic apple groupie. My 5g Ipod video is apparently too old and my new itouch did not come with video output. i’m screwed”

The only recourse, it seems, is to ask for your rental fee back. According to reader reports, Apple has started to issue refunds.

What’s going on?

Bryan Gardiner at
called around and by yesterday had come up with several theories.

Forrester’s James McQuivey thinks it may be a strategy of planned obsolescence — a ploy by Apple to get users to buy new iPods.

Yankee Group’s Carl Howe thinks it might have something to do with the clock-resetting trick some users have discovered for extending the life of a 30-day, 24-hour rental.

The most plausible explanation, to my ear, comes from The Unofficial Apple Weblog’s Christina Warren. She points out here that fifth-generation iPods had a simple analog video output feature (replaced with authentication chip-equipped composite and component AV on the classic, touch and nano with video) that would have allowed rented content to be easily copied. Closing this so-called video hole may have been a requirement imposed on Apple by the movie studios.

Of course, nobody bought a video iPod before September in order to play movies rented on iTunes — an option that didn’t exist at the time. Still, for millions of video iPod owners (disclaimer: I’m one of them), it’s annoying to be so close and yet so far. Clearer disclosure would have been nice. And a refund of a few bucks to users who rented before they discovered the fine print seems like the least Apple could do.

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