With Google and Apple services, Israel enters new digital era

Street View and iTunes music and video downloads now finally available, Apple TV on sale, and iTunes Match likely coming soon; don’t hold your breath for US TV series, though

Apple TV (photo credit: Courtesy)
Apple TV (photo credit: Courtesy)

For the first time, Israelis are now able to join the “world digital party,” partaking of content and services that have long been available in much of the rest of the Western world.

In recent days, Google expanded its Street View service to include many of Israel’s towns and cities, as well as many tourist and heritage sites. And Israelis are now able to purchase content – music and movies – from the online iTunes store, paying for content in shekels, using their locally issued credit cards.

Street View wasn’t always a welcome guest in Israel; security officials warned that the service could be used by terrorists to plan attacks in Israeli towns and cities — in effect letting them do on-line reconnaissance before attacking. The concerns were voiced to CNN last year by Yedioth Ahronoth military and intelligence reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, who said that he was personally uncomfortable that his house would soon be visible on Street View – not only out of concern over security issues, but also “if I say something that someone doesn’t like.” Anyone with nefarious intent would not only be able to find his house, Yishai said, “but they could also plan how to penetrate it and get me.”

Despite the concerns, Street View was implemented in Israel’s large cities last April, with no apparent spike in terror attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, the first cities to come “on-line.” With the latest expansion of the service last Thursday – with dozens more cities and towns around Israel now available for viewing in Street View – there were no specific security concerns expressed by Israelis officials.

The service now includes the entire center of the country (Tel Aviv and suburbs, the Sharon, etc.), as well as many towns and villages in the Galilee and Negev. Not included yet are most settlements in the West Bank, but Google said that communities like Maaleh Adumim, Beitar Illit, and others will be included in a future update. Also added were many important tourist and historical sites, including the Holocaust-era museums at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and Kibbutz Lochamei Hageta’ot, the Timna Reserve, the marketplace in the Druze village of Daliyat al-Carmel and the Bedouin culture museum at the Joe Alon Center in the Negev.

Street View, which lets you see the terrain you want to check out as it really is “on the ground,” is a great way to plan out a trip, or to check out if the hotel room you’ve booked on-line really has that promised ocean view. Americans and Europeans have long had full access to Street View, and now the vast majority of Israelis do as well.

As significant as the Street View implementation is Apple’s decision to allow Israeli consumers access to its entertainment content, including movies, music, and some television programs. For years, Israelis were frustrated at being unable to buy entertainment content from the iTunes store (only apps for iPhones and iPads were available until a few weeks ago). In December, Apple updated the store to allow Israelis to download music, with single downloads costing NIS 2.90 (they’re 99¢ in the American iTunes store). Music includes the latest hits from around the world – pop, classical, country — as well as Israeli music, included after Apple worked out an agreement with local music and record companies.

But Apple went further last week – opening up the iTunes store to movie rentals and purchases in Israel, making Apple the first American entertainment content distributor to do business in Israel. While US residents in Israel have been able to purchase and download content anywhere in the world, including Israel, only Israelis with American “connections” – specifically a credit card issued in the US and billed to a US address – had been able to download content from the US iTunes store (video and music content weren’t even available in the Israeli version of the store). Now, Israelis who have credit cards issued by local banks and billed to Israeli addresses will be able to buy video content as well.

In previous interviews in which the Israeli Apple representative, iDigital, was asked when entertainment content would be available in Israel, a spokesperson said only that Apple Israel was “working out issues that would enable Israelis to download entertainment content.” The spokesperson did not give a reason why those downloads were banned in Israel, but industry officials interviewed pointed to copyright issues – not necessarily with the US-based providers of the content, but with Israeli licensees of content who were not interested in working with Apple, which is charging significantly less for the music and movies it offers in the iTunes store than the Israeli licensees of that content were charging. (Most of the content wasn’t even available digitally, so the only way you could watch a movie was to rent a DVD, as opposed to renting it on-line from the iTunes store). Apparently Apple has worked out those copyright issues, paving the way for the opening of the iTunes store to Israelis.

The availability of movie content is already proving a boon to parents looking for something to keep their kids happy, with four of the top 10 rentals last week Disney movies. (Movies can be purchased for NIS 60 and rented for NIS 15, and are available in English, Hebrew, and 20 other languages.)

Israelis still cannot download or view US-origin broadcast television series programs, one of the most popular features of the US iTunes store. (Israelis do have access to some cartoons and specials, like TV movies.) That is due to copyright and contractual distribution issues as well — issues that are far less likely to be speedily resolved due to their complicated nature, according to industry exports.

Also missing from the Israeli Apple store is iTunes Match, the Apple service that allows you full access to your music collection in the cloud. Unlike other cloud services that require you to upload your music collection in order to hear it on-line – an onerous and time-consuming process – iTunes Match scans your existing music collection and automatically gives you access to a high-quality version of the songs you own from Apple’s own “copy” of the song. (Note that iTunes Match does not check to see the origin of the song, so if you used an app to stream and record a song from Internet radio, or illegally downloaded a song, iTunes Match will still include that music in your collection.) The service costs $25 a year, and can save hundreds of hours in time and frustration for those with large music collections – but is still off limits to Israelis.

But now that music downloading is available to Israelis, it’s likely that iTunes Match will also become available soon, an iDigital representative said, although she could not give a date. iTunes Match is available in 112 countries, so it’s probably just a matter of time before outstanding issues preventing Israelis from taking advantage of iTunes Match are resolved. The TV series issue, on the other hand, is far more complicated, industry experts said, and has been a problem in many countries where where distributors of American TV shows (like cable companies) have cried foul over the fact that a TV episode would be available on-line before it even gets to the TV screen. It’s likely Israelis will have to be satisfied with just movies in their iTunes Store, at least in the near future.

To play all that video content, iDigital has begun selling Apple TV, the smart little streaming device that connects automatically to the iTunes store and displays the content available. Apple TV, which connects to a television set, can be used to organize already existing digital collections, both music and video. When you download a movie, it gets listed on your playlist, and if you’ve rented it, you have 48 hours to view it before it “disappears.” Renting is done with the click of a button, and the Apple TV device takes care of all the details. You can also watch the content on a computer screen, directly from your Mac or PC copy of iTunes. Apple TV costs $99 in the US, and will run Israelis NIS 520.

Israel has long been known as one of the more problematic countries for illegal content downloading – mostly because there were no legal outlets to download content long available in the US and Europe. According to many studies, users who are given the opportunity to legally download content at a reasonable price are much more likely to do so, especially if the cost is low, preferring to rest their conscience – as well as avoid tracking by law enforcement and risk the possibility of a virus “wrapped” in an illegal download infecting their computers.

The proof? The last time Apple counted up the number of 99¢ songs sold in the iTunes store (October 2011), it reported that it had sold more than 16 billion since the service started in April 2003. It remains to be seen if illegal downloading is impacted in Israel as well, but honestly – what else can you really do with NIS 2.90 anyway?

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