Thursday, November 13, 2008

To Dot.App or Make Mac?

The Apple TV continues to occupy my thoughts.

In an earlier post on the aluminum MacBook and new MacBook Pro, I postulated that the Apple TV as a hardware product may be getting the Old Yeller treatment, but live on as software. The Apple is our awkward Front Row all grown up. You run it from your Mac, which when adapted to a TV, has AirTunes and fingers-crossed AirVideo from all of the Macs in the house. Of course, this is not much different than today's situation, it just liberates Apple from the burden of another hardware line. 

The life trajectory of the plucky Apple Remote is a microcosm for the theorized virtual Apple TV. This long-lamented half-effort, a virtually useless silly magnetized plastic IR fob (to steal a line from another plaice) that went from being a keynote feature, stuck to the side of an iMac G5, to a separate, punishingly costly accessory. (At least, I do not believe it still comes with any of the computers. I could be wrong.) WiFi and/or Bluetooth provide omnidirectional range, and the iPod Touch and iPhone run a great The Apple Remote is dead, long live Apple

[By the way, it is criminal that Sony TVs do not come with Bluetooth remotes, simply to prove the point that their vertical integration actually means something. What are these people thinking shipping a custom supercomputer to play games next to a TV that is still not better at wireless transmission than a 1990s Mac TV with IRda?]

But I don't think the Apple TV is going to merge with iTunes. iTunes itself is getting a shade unwieldy. I get video playing when I hit shuffle in my library and I don't like it. Pulling back on Apple TV also carries the whiff of defeat in a space where absolutely every relevant company is making an overt, fierce push. The Wii, XBox 360, PS3, and the endless cable box DVR/On Demand purveyors, including Scientific Atlanta, better known as Cisco, cannot be allowed to continue to wall content off from the Macintosh. 

Whining about FairPlay "languishing" unlicensed is loud, constant, and gets me fed up. I don't see TimeWarner letting me pull a show onto my iPhone and take it with me. FiOS is hyped for its "multi-room DVR." I call that "Safari and the computers in my house", except for some reason when I do it that way, I get sued.

Yes, the space on the TV is the most valuable real estate, and mighty empires are jousting to grasp it. A real Apple TV effort would have a "first iPod" effect if it is the right product. Piracy of video has not motivated the content providers to yield, either, so the hardware has to be spectacular.

First, instantiate a physical platform that lasts for generations of improvements, and inaugurates a formidable marketplace in all virtual visual goods. The iPod killed the CD, and the iTunes Store sells the most music anywhere into a fierce piratical headwind. The device that shifts user consumption away from physical media in three generations? Apple TV 2.0 and 3.0, as Miniature Macs. 

Varying universes of content are already exposed to hardware devices, but this was the case with MP3 players as well. An MP3 player losing out to backpack of CDs and a Discman is baffling to recall, but it was a result of inscrutable players and glacially transmitted content. Today's insistence on satellite or special-subscription wire services may seem similarly quaint, in the face of a four year old Not Hobby Apple TV.

Maybe the Mini Mac (and iMac and Mac Pro, what the hell) will get a games marketplace with stunning graphics? New X2, Crossfire, or SLI cards with a room full of Apple software and hardware people could probably yield a killer-app game for "Apple TV-enabled" Macs. After all, Bungie is free again! Frog blast the vent core / we are owed Marathon 4. I'd trade a full-fledged Mac Mini for a Super Apple TV. Apple certainly is using the "funnest" thing as a differentiating club with which to beat other only-phones and only-consoles.

An Apple TV-enabled Mac Mini is Apple TV 2.0, especially if you hack off the USB, Firewire, and ethernet ports. Sacrilege I know, but your Mini Apple TV is going to have TV outs, and wireless computer inputs. Time Capsule, Bluetooth, HDMI, DisplayPort, and maybe component if it fits. WASD and rhapsodize on e-mail (or OMG and LOL on IM) all you want, but printing and scanning and movie editing are for other rooms with other Macs. Indeed, they are done in other mental spaces, something which few electronics companies heed whatsoever, with Apple mediocre but in the lead.

The CD market is eroding at a ten or twenty percent rate, ceding something in the high single digit percentages to downloads, and that was before the economy took a dive. The time slots of your life that Apple is given the opportunity to program will soon equal that percentage of your old "TV" time. It is the ease of jumping into the video stream that people miss. An editorial hand in a video "channel" is appreciated. Perhaps it will take Apple selling "iTunes Essentials"-alike bundles of concept shows, such as Cooking Essentials or NFL Sunday Access or whatever? 
All this is speculation. I would not be surprised to see a PA Semi-driven OS X box with iPhone-alike app signing, tied to a store with an emphasis on "TV" content and console-style gaming where Apple drops one must-have game hit and the content, console, mobile and home computer war is ended for a generation. 

Cisco, Oracle, Salesforce, Dell, HP, IBM and others can have corporate sales, a drearily low-margin quagmire, and maybe Google, Sun, or some of the other truly differentiated companies (Sony 6-1, Microsoft 100-1) can put those differences to work as well as Apple seems to someday.

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