Television without the Television

iMac G5Today, Apple announced the addition of new video capabilities to its one-two entertainment punch of iPod hardware and iTunes software, satisfying a long festering demand for portable video and providing an inevitable method for buying video content. They’re significant first steps in monetizing broadband content and I think they’re cool, but they leave me basically nonplussed.

What’s got me in a lather, though, is the new iMac G5, which is tantalizingly, frustratingly close to a great media center… but still miles short of what I had in mind. Where is the TV tuner functionality, first of all? If there’s something glaringly missing from this offering that in so many respects desperately wants to be a television, it’s the ability to actually be able to use it as a television.

Kill Your Television

I probably already know the answer to why this is so: in negotiating the rights to offer downloadable video sales, Apple had to concede on television functionality, I’m willing to bet. Adding a tuner to a Mac invites the obvious addition of PVR functionality, too, which, to the providers of video content, is like opening the prettiest door to video piracy ever. Which is a shame, because a TV tuner and a PVR would have made for a very difficult to resist product.

Even then, it still wouldn’t be perfect, because I think media centers in general are missing a key, yet-to-be invented component: some method of making it physically easier to use them for their intended dual purposes of being productive (desktop computer mode) and being lazy (TV-watching mode). Is there really any place in a home that you can place a media center where it’s just as comfortable to use as a computer as it is to use as a television? Right now, the answer is no, and it will remain so, I think, unless someone invents an incredibly sturdy and articulate armature that allows a screen to move off of a desk and in front of a couch — or until someone invents a variant on the AirPort Express that will stream beautiful, full-resolution video from a Mac on my desk to a TV in my living room. Someone’s working on that, right?

Remotely Successful

One more note about the new iMac G5: its remote control is one of the smartest designs I’ve ever seen. To begin with, remote controls have been a source of continual interface anxiety for decades; virtually no interaction designer who has ever lived hasn’t dreamt of building an exceedingly simple and elegant remote control. From what I’ve seen so far, Apple has pulled it off.

The thing about brilliant design solutions is that they start out by rephrasing the question at hand. Rather than asking themselves, “How do we fix what’s wrong with this piece of hardware?“ Apple asked themselves, “What is this piece of hardware doing that can be done in software instead?“ The result is a vastly reduced number of buttons, with functionality moving over into the interface of the promisingly beautiful Front Row software. I hope it lives up to the advance billing when I get to see it in person.

  1. Something like SONY’s location free TV?

    I also think you maybe want the reverse:

    A (silent) media PC/MAC in the living room that looks like your other snazzy A/V components that either through ethernet or wireless also happens to be streaming your desktop into the other room – or maybe through a future mac mini or something.

    I agree on the video iPod front. I use my PSP to watch movies/TV a lot, and I can’t imagine doing that on a screen less than half the size, no matter how much it holds. Now if they also made the iPod a GameBoy! 😉

  2. El Gato makes something like what you (and I) want the Airport Express to do, called the EyeHome – it looks slick, and I’ve been centimetres away from buying one for about a year now. The thing is… who can afford to watch MORE TV?

  3. We are opening up another Taekwondo location in January, and the most exciting part is that we get to add another imac to our collection 🙂 can’t wait to get this one.

  4. I was thinking the same thing, Khoi! I have the only Mac that was ever designed double as a TV: the Macintosh TV. It came with a remote and TV tuner builtin. Incidentally, it was the only black Mac desktop too (if you skip the 20th Anniversary). So amusing to see them going back to 1996 in a way – but short of the tuner.

  5. I’m interested in if they make Front Row extensible. I mean, really, it is quite nice front end to many media components – if they had an API for third party add-ons, someone could write a PVR plugin, you get yourself that nice Plextor ConvertX, and off and running. Hello, Windows MCE killer?

  6. and if you wear this puppy out in the city, watch your back. a smart company would design an old-school walkman case for this bad boy. it almost reminds me of 1996 alphabet city and laptops. people brown-bagged them to not get mugged.

    remember when…

  7. Exactly my sentiments Khoi. For years I’ve harped on about the iMac having an integrated TV tuner.

    Like you say, the whole ‘iHome’ device is tantalisingly close as a piece of hardware. What’s missing though is the infrastructure, such as an iTunes store that you can download full-length DVD quality films. Once that is in place I think we’ll see the introduction of some hardware like this, but I still feel it’s a couple of years off.

  8. I’m still thinking to myself, “why does iTunes handle your photos and not iTunes?”

    Has the Power Mac grown stagnant or what? Sheesh.

  9. With TiVo facing so many DRM (and finance) problems, my completely unsubstantiated and probably entirely wrong guess is that, at some point, Apple is going to buy TiVo and move from there. This new iMac functionality seems to be a step in that direction.

  10. I think that would be fantastic if Apple bought TiVo, but I’m doubtful it would ever happen. The PVR is still too controversial a device for Apple to touch while they’re trying to cultivate good relationships with Hollywood studios — which will be necessary if they ever want to build a real video downloads store selling full-resolution videos.

    Still, it would be a win if, like Kevan suggested, Apple makes Front Row extensible. Then you could add an extension for an El Gato device or a Mac version of MythTV. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

  11. Why isn’t Apple selling “Front Row” as a stand alone software product that is sold with a video-capable AirPort Express.

    Maybe the AirPort Express bandwidth isn’t enough, but it makes more sense than:

    1. Buying video content.
    2. Transferring to video iPod.
    3. Connecting to iPod to TV.

    Does the iPod Video + Universal Dock experience display a “Front Row” interface on the TV screen?

  12. What you want for TV, movies or music, is fast and immediate action. And you want it right then and there – and not after hours of twiddling.

    The problem of movies is the problem of file placement / organisation, of file format, and of playback options. Currently, the main question before starting any computer-based video playback is: “am I in the mood for some major twiddling?”, and not: “do I want to watch a bit of movie?”. If the industry can’t get that straight, they’ll keep stalling. And as far as I can tell, they can’t get that straight at all. There simply is NO NEED for a remote control, if the starting, and closing up, of the device requires full access to the keyboard. As long as the command-line version of the ‘mplayer last binary’ software is the most powerful movie-player around on Macs, why bother about a remote control? If I am already being an uber geek, what’s wrong with CTRL-C?

    Acer sold some TV-card containing computers that work extremely well under Windows XP – and I have not seen any similarly reliable and accessible setup on the Apple side. But TV is a signal-processing problem that can be solved rather well. It’s the movie playback that is so much different. I noticed that before I even think about starting the computer and try out playing back a DVD (which also will reduce the life span of my expensive combo drive’s CD-writing and DVD-writing capability), I’ll buy myself a newspaper and read that.

    And before I buy myself a costly DVD, I see whether there’s a cheaper VHS tape around. After all, start/stop/pause works there too, and fingerprints don’t tend to mess up your whole night.

    That’s the sort of challenge the industry faces. And Apple didn’t really address that.

  13. FrontRow actually seems like it would be a perfect addition to the Mac Mini – it’s already capable of wireless-PVR-type behaviour with a few hacks, and your TV can act as a monitor (thus getting around the problem of where to put an object that’s both personal computer and television). Anyway, I’m sure it’s coming – maybe that’s why Apple’s held off on announcing the spec improvements on the Mac Mini – they’re waiting to present a package Mac Mini / FrontRow / remote control version with a massive hard-drive and free icecream?

  14. PVR function is easy with third party software and equipment. But, what I am waiting for from Apple is the Mini Mac with remote control. Something that would fit next to my DVD.

  15. I’ve got Windows MCE running at home and it works a treat. The PVR functionality isn’t as developed as TiVo but it’s good enough for me; the interface isn’t as pretty as Apple would make but it fits with the one on my cable box…

    I could be streaming wirelessly to my XBox in the lounge, if I could be bothered, but I don’t really need it at the moment. I’ve got no clue how you control the streaming from the client machine though…

    Oh, and you can get DVD player-style PC cases now too, complete with LCD front panel if you want that silent, AV component look.

    Basically, I think that if Apple want a piece of the action they’d better get a move on. MCE is becomming a mature software app, ironing out many of the bugs from previous versions.

  16. Great point regarding Apple needing to compromise on a tv tuner in order to get itunes downloading rights. If you’re right I must say I don’t like the idea of the Macs suffering from downgrades of any kind so that some other departmentat Apple can get a nod.

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