A really rough proposal for an Apple Media Hub (Part Two)

01/11/2005

This part is mostly about: How to get a device into people’s homes that opens up these markets and these possibilities and lets people do more stuff with their stuff. If you have not done so already, you should first go and read Part One.

So from now on, I’m going to talk a lot about what I think specifically Apple should do because I think they’re the best placed in the world to do this stuff right now. Their brand isn’t as geeky as Microsoft – and they’re have already demonstrated that people will buy entertainment technology from them (the iPod) even though they’ve traditionally been better known for their computers. Companies like Tivo – at least at the moment – are too narrowly focused on one form of digital media to really be able to mount that much of a challenge in this area (and I think they’re probably more than aware of that by the way that they’ve started to work more with Microsoft. Sony would also be a good condender in this area if they weren’t busy trying to develop new types of smart guns with which they can shoot themselves in the foot with startling new levels of efficiency.

One of the big questions that we’re going to come up against in thinking through the home media hub will be how do we get people to buy the devices we’re talking about. Not all new technologies gel with consumers immediately. One technique for getting new tech into people’s homes is to combine or hybridise it with existing equipment. Many people had their first DVD player as a pleasant side-effect of buying a Playstation or Xbox. The Xbox also allowed people to rip songs to its internal hard disk – functionality that I doubt many people would have gone out and directly bought at that stage. And Playstations with built-in PVRs have been mooted for a while now. Hybridisation seems to be an almost natural process when it comes to the handling of media – potentially because the web-like models and increasing mobility and granularity of media objects that we’re moving toward is turning out to be similar for video, web pages, songs, photographs… So hybridisation is likely to be an answer – but hybridisation with what?

So the obvious bits of existing technology that our future home media hub will need to be able to hook into with are:

  • The internet – for the purchasing of on-demand video and music, and to have a return path for data
  • TV – for video playback and rich visual interfaces for stuff
  • Audio equipment / Stereos etc – for the playing of downloaded or ripped music
  • Home computers etc, that may wish to manipulate or handle media artifactrs in some richer way

What hardware / functionality does this imply?

  • Obviously the first piece of implied functionality that any hub has is a large amount of digital storage and some way of navigating around the material stored upon it.
  • If we want this device to have mass appeal then it has to be something that you could sell – or rent as part of a service package – to people who don’t yet have internet access (or don’t even have a computer). One clear way to do this would be to disaggregate internet access from the computer, and instead place some form of cable or ADSL modem within the media hub itself. This would seem to me to be the most reasonable approach.
  • In order to distribute that internet access to other devices, the simplest solution would seem to be to fit the device with a wifi hub. This immediately creates the potential for a local area network of connected devices streaming and connected to one another without the complexities of setting up dedicated routers. In principle then small Airport-Express style local hubs could be distributed next to other devices in the home that do not yet have home local area network functionality built into them. This could also distribute the internet access throughout a home in the most effective way.
  • If there are going to be any cabled connections then it would make sense to have them be between the device and the equipment with which it is likely to communicate the most possible data. This may very well be a local computer or laptop for some people, but for most – with video files being so enormous, it makes most sense for the device to be attached to the home television.
  • And in order to be a useful device for storing or playing digital music, then – if again we assume that we’re marketing to people who may not have a computer already – then we have to consider putting some kind of CD-playing or ripping functionality into the device itself.
  • This has another advantage, because if we’re considering putting in a CD slot, then there seems little reason why the same slot should not be usable for DVDs. This would then immediately increase the value of the device for people – particularly given that we’re already assuming that it’s going to be connected to the television in some way.
  • And given that we’re talking about handling large files and connecting to a television – PVR functionality seems like a natural fit.

So far then, we have a box (and not yet a desperately inexpensive one) that should be connected to a television, has a large hard-disk within it that can contain video and audio and has a slot for inserting DVDs or CDs. This is essentially then, a cut-down monitor-less iMac – for those of you who have been paying attention. Clearly you’d want to to create non-OSX-style interfaces since people are likely to want to use the device via a remote control of some kind, but if such a device has been mooted for around $500 (by Mac rumour-mongers), then it’s not inconceivable that you could bring something to market that people would be interested in buying.

In fact, if you look at devices that are already on the market, there are some that are not a million miles away from this model already. Two particular devices are already available that attach to a computer, have large hard disks, have some wired connections via the telephone or ADSL – and one of them already allows the ripping of music. On the one hand we have the dedicated PVR and on the other the dedicated gaming platform.

In order then to get this new device into people’s homes you could either:

  1. Further develop the entertainment features of gaming consoles, making them into full media hubs for the home.
  2. Further develop the connectivity and cross-media functionality of the PVR to a similar effect.

Marketing our partially mooted speculative device as an extension of a gaming console has some clear advantages – there’s already a decent amount of money to be made from gaming, the people who use them are keen consumers of new technology and much of the functionality is already in place. If I were Microsoft of Sony I would be moving in these directions. But I think I’d also be looking for a model that would appeal to a wider market than gamers. For many the gaming elements of a hybrid device could be a turn-off.

PVRs are similarly strong in some areas, but they haven’t yet set the world on fire. The consensus opinion appears to be that the main problem is that it is hard to articulate to people what a PVR does. Once people have bought one, they generally find them a delight to use. In which case a company like Apple that has little chance of being able to bring a successful gaming console to market is still in with a chance. It’s not necessarily terribly hard to evolve the concept of the PVR into a cross-media device, for watching and recording TV, watching DVDs and streaming music around a home. And once you’ve turned it into a media manager, then all Apple would have to do is make reference to their other successful piece of navigational technology:

DVD Player, iTunes at Home, PVR – it’s the iPod for everything else

At this point you should have a bit of a sense of the direction I’d be going with this stuff, so I’ll move on to putting up some illustrations of the concept and trying to articulate precisely how I think it should work…