The Case For Removable Media on the iPad

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings made a cameo at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference Monday to help announce the new Netflix adaptive bit-rate streaming app for the iPhone.

The announcement was not wholly unexpected — there’s already a Netflix streaming app for the iPad — but the timing was notable. One week earlier, Apple’s exclusive wireless carrier, AT&T, announced strict new data caps to be imposed on iPhone and iPad 3G users. Apple gadgeteers will no longer be able to buy all-you-can-eat flat-rate data plans. Instead, iPhone and iPad users will have to choose between a $15 a month plan that offers 200 MB of bandwidth per month or a $25 plan offering 2GB per month. Those who exceed the cap on the low-end plan will have to pay another $15 for an additional 200 MB. Those who go over the 2GB limit will be charged $10 for each extra GB.

As many commentators have noted, those strict limits could quickly become problematic for users who like to stream video on their iPads, including Netflix video. The folks at Clicker did some math and calculated that watching a single, 22-minute TV episode from Netflix in standard definition on an iPad consumed 55 MB of data, or 2.5 MB per minute of video. An hour-long TV show (~43 min.) on Netflix would consume 110MB of data; an hour-long movie (60 full minutes) would use 150 MB of data and a two-hour movie would consume 300 MB.

Thus, one two-hour movie per month would bust the limit on the low-end plan even if you did nothing else that month that consumed bandwidth. With the high-end plan, you could use roughly 13.5 hours of Netflix video per month before hitting your limit, assuming, again, that you did nothing else with your device that required data, which is of course absurd.

As Colin Gibbs noted in a piece for GigaOm Pro last week, the problem of wireless bandwidth constraints is not limited to AT&T. Unless and until the FCC figures out how to make more spectrum available, all wireless data providers are going to face constraints, even those with more robust networks than AT&T. This will become especially true as more PC and smartphone makers roll out tablets to compete with the iPad and more content owners look to exploit the new distribution platforms.

There is at least a partial solution to the problem, but it’s one Apple has so far refused to embrace (but which other tablet makers likely will). It’s called removable media. If you could download a movie from a PC or a kiosk at Wal-Mart or Blockbuster onto a SD card and then side-load the movie onto your iPad using the SD card slot, you wouldn’t have consumed any wireless bandwidth at all. You could even download and store it in HD without implicating your bandwidth cap.

But there is no SD card slot on the iPad (or iPhone), or any other sort of removable media input. Why not? I suspect it’s because including such things could require Apple to support a number of formats and standards it doesn’t want to support, like (gasp!) Flash, or DivX, or some type of non-FairPlay DRM.

More critically, a removable  media input would open the iPad to retailers other than Apple. If you could side-load a movie or TV show you downloaded from Blockbuster, you wouldn’t have to buy it through the App Store, or use the Netflix app you obtained through the App Store as part of a deal between Apple and Netflix.

As I noted here before, Apple designed the iPad to be a sealed vault, where the only way in is through an Apple-controlled interface. With its new data plans, however, AT&T has now put a price on Apple’s obstinacy — one Apple’s customers alone will have to pay.

The solution is obvious. It’s up to Apple to decide how much it really cares about its customers, but I’m not holding my breath.

Question of the week

Would you like to see slots for removable media on the next version of the iPad?