|Tuesday, November 29, 2005
16:34 - Pretend it's 2004
Apple's Mac mini will be reborn as the digital hub centerpiece it was originally conceived to be, Think Secret sources have disclosed. The new Mac mini project, code-named Kaleidoscope, will feature an Intel processor and include both Front Row 2.0 and TiVo-like DVR functionality.
. . .
The new Mac mini is also said to sport a built-in iPod dock, a feature that was scrapped from the Mac mini Apple first introduced one year ago. Other hardware specifics are unknown, such as whether the Mac mini will feature video recording out of the box or whether an add-on will be offered for those looking to employ the Mac mini not as a second computer but as their living room command center.
I guess it doesn't count as speculation or rumormongering to revisit this topic, since when the Mac mini was first announced everyone was expecting it to have been a media-center device right out of the gate. And now that Apple's released Front Row, curiously on an iMac with a remote but without any clear tie-in to home-theater applications or even hooking it up to your TV, and now that the video iPod is out grazing the market looking for a compelling reason to exist other than competitive checkboxism, I guess this news doesn't surprise me much. Still, though, word of an Intel processor (hinting that it'll be this and the iBooks that will be the first to go Intel), a video iPod dock, and a real TiVo-esque DVR application with the full weight of Apple's software design behind it, would seem to indicate that Apple's ready to explain to all of us what their long-term video strategy's supposed to be.
So it's to be a Mac mini for the home theater, with Front Row and that little white remote and a direct TV connection—and the iMac G5 for what, then? Teleconferencing? It's important for there to be a clearly delineated use case for each of these products, and it's telling that the iMac's marketing material has skirted any mention of turning it into a DVR/media center plugged into your TV—instead it's got that built-in iSight and PR copy that leads off with iChat AV. I have no idea how well that kind of thing sells; but minus the iChat stuff and plus DVR/TV connectivity, it becomes the media center everyone expected the mini to be in the first place. That angle doesn't seem to be lost on anyone.
The interesting bit, to me, is the alleged built-in iPod dock—it's that sort of thing that would support a use case for the video iPod that centers around something other than $2 U2 videos. Apple would have to roll out a raft of marketing material explaining what they hope to have people do with their Mac Media Center and video iPod; as of now their wired-digital-home strategy is based upon AirPort Express supporting iTunes music broadcast throughout the house, but what's the new story they're preparing to sell? Will this media-center machine be pressed into service as the household's primary iTunes data store and purchasing station as well as the main Front Row device for playing movies? Is it there that you'll be expected to dock your iPod, load it up with music and videos, and take them on the go? If so, it makes for a compelling advertising visual—a home theater with an iPod stuck into the top of the little white box on the shelf next to the widescreen plasma HDTV—but it makes people using iPods on their desktop computers wonder whether they're being relegated to legacy mode.
The reason I say this is that to tout a thru-the-TV computer interface seems like a huge departure in interface design. How's it supposed to work? Just a glance at Front Row tells you right away what kinds of compromises have to be made when designing an interface that's legible and navigable from the couch ten feet from the screen. And what about input? You don't get a keyboard, do you? Or a mouse? (Or does Apple expect to sell Bluetooth keyboards and mice to every buyer?) And what about iTunes itself? It's the back-end for all this media-center stuff; how will it operate through a TV screen, where you have to account for interlaced composite video signals where text smaller than about 24-point can't even be read? That'll hardly be an ideal environment for running the text-heavy iTunes; you'd pretty much have to have HDTV, and I don't know if Apple's ready to release an HD-only media center product (though it would help explain why they've waited this long to jump into the already well-established, and even already stagnant, segment). I don't think they're going to want to make users wrangle the entire Mac OS X desktop in a media center context, in any case, even on an HDTV.
I'm running through this thought experiment because if Apple doesn't intend this machine to be your iTunes Central box, then what's the workflow they're proposing? AirTunes broadcasting of music and videos from an iTunes on someone's computer in another room—possibly with the AirPort Express base station and media bridge functionality built right into the new mini? Possible, but that's way too needlessly complex to be their primary recommended topology. And how does that idea tie in with the iPod Dock built into the mini? It doesn't, is how; either you dock your iPod with your main iTunes computer, or you dock it with the mini—one or the other, and whichever one you pick is where all your iPod media comes from. You don't get to use it to ferry your music and videos from one to the other. Even if it were rigged such that the software allowed you to do such a thing, it's a hopelessly clunky solution—who wants to shuttle your iPod from one computer to the other every time you want to get newly purchased music or videos from your iTunes computer onto your TV? Yuck. And nobody's going to go for a solution from Apple that's sold as requiring you to buy two computers, one of which isn't even really usable as a computer.
No, if this thing is for real, they've got to have some kind of software solution for delivering iTunes' feature set to a TV-based interface. Even if they make it HDTV-only, that's no mean feat. It'd involve rethinking the entire navigation and input paradigm—it'd have to be menu-driven instead of mouse-driven, it'd rely on the textual browser columns rather than the flashy purchasing pages with their tiny info boxes, and it'd have to either trim down features like AirPort music sharing and album art management, or significantly rework them to be TV-friendly. Even if Apple were to stipulate that you must have a component-video HDTV display and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to join your array of remote controls sitting on your coffee table, it remains to be seen how iTunes could be incorporated into Front Row itself, leading you into the purchasing and organizing functions in the same way as you'd ideally be navigating the playback options for your music and home movies and DVDs.
It's this kind of complexity in making sense of the user experience that had led me to think Apple would never release a video-enabled iPod; the signals it sends end up getting really badly mixed, unless they're managed very carefully. It's worth noting that although all my friends seem to have giant LCD/plasma TVs these days, usually with hacked TiVo units with massive hard drives, nobody has Windows Media Centers hooked up to them; somehow, the media center paradigm has failed to grab the attention of the geek set, the very people Apple's wooed into being the iPod Generation. Either Apple thinks it has the solution for turning those people on to the media center bandwagon—a solution as hip as the iPod itself, as I'm sure they hope to convince themselves the new Mac mini will be—or they're going for a whole different demographic, the one that's already buying media center devices and worshipping TiVo and might potentially be looking for a better-yet solution.
Neither of these possibilities seems like a slam-dunk to me. But the things that become smash hits—like the iPod—usually seem to be greeted upon their release with widespread skepticism. As a printout on the wall of the User Experience cubicles here at work says:
If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have asked for a faster horse.
Via Chris M.