Why The Apple Store’s Movie Rentals Suck

June 15th, 2009 | Posted in It's All Geek to Me!

Apple does a lot of things right.

They build good computers. They design good software that is easy and intuitive to use. They (mostly) stand by their products and offer very good support, especially if you are willing to pay for their AppleCare extended warranties. AppleCare is expensive, but you get something for your money. Macs are expensive but you get a lot of computer for the money. Apple comes up with innovative products like the iPod and the iPhone. They pride themselves on having their fingers on the pulse of their customers.

However, Apple is truly clueless when it comes to the video rentals in their Apple Store. In that case they are trying to take the pulse of their customer by sticking their fingers in the customer’s eyes. They have the best portable video player available today in the iPhone and iPod Touch, but their rental system is designed to be as inconvenient to a traveler as possible.

I haven’t had many occasions to rent a movie from Apple. Usually I rent them from Netflix, but dragging along a bunch of DVDs and watching them on my laptop isn’t nearly as easy and convenient as loading a couple of movies on my iPhone and watching them. For starters, I’d be lucky to get through two full movies with a charge on my laptop before it died. Second, there is not a lot of room in those airplane seats and only a small DVD player is easy to move when you have to get up and let the fat, smelly man in the seat next to you out to use the bathroom he obviously needed to visit 10 minutes ago. No, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch you can load 6 or more movies on them and watch them in an easy to access and put away manner.

Watching movies on the iPhone is great… but renting them sucks because for some reason Apple insists on building in a 24 hour self destruct on their rentals. Once you rent them, you have an unlimited amount of time to start watching the movie, but once you start watching it the movie erases itself from your iPhone (or from your Apple TV or in iTunes) after 24 hours. Not once you are done watching it, once you START watching it. So you have 24 hours to finish watching your movie… or else you don’t get to finish it. Ever.

Now, you might say “Big deal! A movie is only two hours or so. You should be able to finish it in 24 hours!” Not if you are traveling, especially in an airplane. You only have a certain amount of time you are allowed to use “approved electronic devices” on an airplane. After all, as we all know, if you happen to have a small, handheld electronic device like an iPod still powered on when the plane is under 20,000 feet it’s enormous magnetic field will “interfere with the plane’s navigation system” quickly turning the aircraft into a flaming pinwheel of death. How often do you think a traveler would start a movie on an airplane and actually finish it before landing? If it’s along flight, could you finish two movies? Not likely. It’s much more likely that said traveler would end up “turning off and stowing” that iPhone somewhere during whatever film they were watching, thereby saving the lives of all the other passengers by deactivating the insidious, plane navigation destroying magnetic field of destruction that threatens the aircraft.

Yet, Apple only allows you another 22 hours to watch the end of that movie. Here’s the rub… in all likelyhood you are going to your destination to do something other than sit in your hotel room and finish watching a rented movie. It’s also likely that eventually you will be taking a flight BACK to where you just came from, and would like to resume your movie at that time, or perhaps even rewind a bit to get back into the story.

No, says Apple! Your $2.99 is only good for 24 hours after you START the film. If you don’t get around to watching the entire thing it that time, it will disappear along with your money from your device. Poof… gone. This happened to me not once but TWICE recently.

That is just plain stupid. Of course Apple needs to restrict the time frame in which you are allowed to have the movie on your device… as a rental you must “return” it at some point. However when you rent a disk from Netflix or BlockBuster, you are allowed to watch it as often as you want during the time period allowed, stopping and starting as often as you wish over a period of at least a week. Apple lets you watch your movie over and over if you want during that 24 hour period, but once it’s over it’s gone.

Wouldn’t it be better for the customer to guarantee they will be able to watch the ENTIRE movie at least once? Why not set the 24 hour self destruct to start once the movie is over… or a week from the time the movie starts? It’s very aggravating to pay $2.99 for a movie rental and never get to see the end because you were too busy doing whatever it is you were travelling for to stop and watch the rest of your film and it was digital dust by the time your return flight departs.

The self destruct 24 hour limit on their movies is extremely counter productive. They should design their rental system to be as travel convenient as possible, and this is anything but. Right now portability is the biggest thing the Apple Store’s video offers, but they don’t do it in the kind of user-friendly fashion one would expect from Apple.

Can you tell I just spent about 24 hours on airplanes in the last week? Next time I’ll rant about the stupidity of travelers who wear surgical masks that offer absolutely no protection from Swine Flu.


  1. The rentals won’t play on the early model video ipods at all – I learned that one the hard way when I made my first and last itunes rental for a long train ride. I watched a the first half hour at home, synched my ipod to watch the rest on the train and then found out I was S.O.L. And of course the rental self-destructed on my home machine before I got back from my trip. Now I just take a book.

  2. FalKirk says:

    I’m totally in agreement with your sentiments regarding the ridiculous 24 hour time limitation. But I’m not sure that the 24 hour limitation is within Apple’s control. Similar to DRM, I think the 24 hour time limit is imposed on Apple from the movie industry. After all, why would Apple care if you had 48 hours (or more) to rent and watch a movie?

    • Tom says:

      I guess that had not occurred to me. Whoever is dictating the backwards time limit needs to rethink their strategy. It is ridiculous to expect a customer to pay money to rent a film and not be guaranteed they will be able to see it in it’s entirety at their own convenience at least once.

  3. Robert G. says:

    Regarding the “insidious, plane navigation destroying magnetic field of destruction”

    Actually, I think the FAA is worried about the radio waves coming from electronic devices. Pretty much any electronic device is generating some radiation, but at a very low level. The idea that an iPod (or a laptop or even a cell phone) can generate enough radiation to actually interfere with navigation is ridiculous (otherwise Al Qaida would load up on Mac Books and wreak havoc on the airways).

    It’s not really up to the airlines, of course. These are FAA regulations that they have to follow. And surely the government would have a good reason for these, right? /end-sarcasm

    • Tom says:

      You know I looked into that and it turns out there is NO FAA regulation that requires you turn off PEDs under a certain altitude. Individual airlines make up that rule on their own. There was a case in the 1950’s where two airplanes collided that was believed to be caused by interference from a radio being used by a passenger, but that was never proven andno study has ever been able to show that PEDs actually cause any navigational or communication issues. It’s all a precautionary “better safe than sorry” sort of thing. I joke about it but I have no real problem with it… I just think the scare tactics are funny.

  4. Nate says:

    FalKirk is completely right. Everyone at Apple would agree with the sentiment of your post, Tom. The film studios insisted on this 24 limitation before they would approve of digital download rentals of their movies. You can thank the MPAA for your frustrations here.

  5. John Read says:

    Tom, regarding having to tote discs with you on a trip: What about the new streaming feature that Netflix offers, wherein you can instantly watch movies on your computer or Netflix-enabled device? Can you not use that feature on your Mac? I am able to “instantly watch” certain movies and TV shows through my Xbox 360, my Blu-Ray player or my PC.

  6. Doug says:

    I rented Superbad to watch while traveling to Colorado for skiing. The exact scenario you’re talking about happened. Didn’t want to “waste” it on the flight over there in case I happened to be bored at some point on the trip. The night before I left I thought about starting it but was worried I wouldn’t finish it on the plane and wouldn’t have time when I got home before it erased. I actually felt rushed to finish it in the car while someone picked me up from the airport. 1st and last time I ever rented one. I would’ve just bought it but back then (not sure if this has changed) you couldn’t buy every movie and this was one you could only rent. They ought to fix it though as I’m sure they’ve lost a lot of customers such as ourselves.

  7. David Lubin says:

    Hey, how about NOT renting a movie from Apple for your flight and having to see it within hours of your destination? Read a magazine, a book, listen to music, or just take a snooze. And Tom, if you need one, I’ll be glad to send you one of the high quality masks…LOL.

    • Tom says:

      Not renting a movie from Apple is exactly what I’ll be doing on any flight I happen to take from now on.

  8. Emma says:

    It’s not just travellers who are inconvenienced by the 24 hr limit. Say you are a busy parent who gets to relax after the kids are in bed…………start the movie around 9 pm. Child has nightmare/throws up/mother in law calls/turns out you are just too wiped out by day to stay up with a 3 hr movie……………so you stop movie, deal with Life Issues, go to bed. Next day at 9pm, kids in bed at at last, NOW you try to watch the rest of the movie.
    Bad luck! It’s gone for ever.

    Yes, it’s stupid. Surely Apple has enough clout to deal with the movie moguls.

  9. John V says:

    On Apple’s side, if you rented a new, one day rental movie from Blockbuster, you’d have to return it after 24 hours whether you watched it or not.

    However, since the digital age is supposed to be convenient and save us from stress, if you’ve paid your hard-earned money for a movie that self destructed before you could watch it, wouldn’t this be a justifiable reason to download a copied version? Then just delete it when you’re done.

    • Tom says:

      Blockbuster hasn’t done a short term rental like that for many years. These days you get at least a week before they start reminding you and have no late fees regardless. Eventually if you ignore their reminders they will charge you for the disk but will refund it if you return it. Besides I understand the need to have a deadline for rental for physical media, because as long as you have the actual DVD they cannot rent it to someone else. No need to “return” a downloaded film and not watching it for a month doesn’t prevent Apple from renting as many as they like to other people.

      It’s simple, Apple and/or the MPAA should make it a guaranteed that a customer can watch the entire film they rent at their leisure prior to self destructing it. Until they do I will stick with Netflix. bad business model.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: