4 Steps From The Office To the Lounge

13Dec05

As seems to be the case every December, the rumor mills are awash with MacWorld-based speculation. This year the focus seems to be on the much publicized switch from IBM to Intel processors. Steve Jobs declared that the first Intel Macs would be available mid-2006 yet the consensus seems to be that Jobs will unveil the first ‘MacIntel’ as early as January 10th when he takes to the stage for his obligatory keynote. This may well be the case but I can’t help thinking that the Mac community is missing the real story.

The mass public are blissfully unaware of the significance of the Intel migration. Sure, there maybe real advantages to be garnered by the average user. The ability to dual boot between Windows and Mac OS X may well be a boon for the wary switcher or the poor soul who depends on a Windows-only app. And then, of course, there are the likely speed improvements. But a quick look at the usage habits of the average user quickly dispels the myth that Joe Public cares about the manufacturer of the CPU inside their computer. After all, browsing the web and emailing your friends and family can be handled effortlessly by even the slowest IBM G4 processor.

Of much more importance to non-geeks is the gradual migration from the office to the lounge. Apple have been encouraging us to think of the Mac as a ‘digital hub’ for five years now. The iLife software suite has facilitated a change in the way we acquire, store and use our photos and music. Our most precious moments and memories are now recorded on to our hard drives and viewed on LCD’s. But unlike the average geek, most users do not spend the majority of their leisure time in the office and Apple knows it.

I remember the fervent speculation in the weeks before the last MacWorld conference. One of the wilder claims was of a device dubbed the ‘iHome’. A ‘headless’ iMac without a screen. In effect, a set top box bringing the content of the hard drive into the homes main living area. Apple had already launched the Airport Express, a wireless base station that could also be used to stream music from iTunes to the hi-fi with near-zero configuration. And as I sat and watched Jobs unveil the Mac Mini to the tech press I thought thats what we had got.

The Mac Mini has the perfect form factor for the living room. Small, quiet and discreet. And although it’s underpowered for the pro user, it has adequate horsepower for serving both music and video. However, Apple have spent the last 12 months marketing the mini as a cheap alternative for those Windows users curious about the Mac platform but reluctant to spend the thousands of dollars on their stock consumer machine, the iMac. I would argue that the mini’s true value is as the first mac to truly live up to the ‘digital hub’ hype. So what improvements are needed to fulfill this potential?

  1. A user interface – A year ago there was no obvious way to navigate your digital content without a mouse and keyboard. That changed last September when Jobs announced the first version of an application called Front Row. Designed to be used from the couch, Front Row provides the sofa-bound with an interface that uses large and legible text and graphics. This allows the user to navigate through the digital media stored on their hard drive using the remote controller that ships with the latest revision of the iMac G5. Thats fine as long as you don’t mind your iMac being the focal point of your living room. But the focus of most living rooms is the TV. By bringing Front Row to the Mac Mini, Apple would likely secure a place under the television in many homes.
  2. Music sharing for video – Way back in 2003 Apple announced iTunes Music Sharing, a feature of the seminal (and free) iTunes music player that allowed other users on the same network to browse, stream and listen to the content of other users music libraries with zero configuration required. Soon afterwards they added the same functionality to iPhoto, giving users easy access to other photo libraries on the same LAN. By leveraging this functionality into Front Row and adding the same sharing features for video, the couch-bound user suddenly has access to all digital content no matter where in the house its stored.
  3. A TV-out capable graphics card – With its DVI output, the current Mac Mini tows the current Apple marketing stance as a cheap desktop replacement system. Even with the included VGA adaptor its beyond the average consumer to display their photos and video on anything but a computer monitor. Adding a TV-out socket to the Mini’s video card would make connections to a regular home entertainment system a breeze.
  4. An infrared remote control – The iMac G5 now ships with an intergrated infrared port and remote control. This would need to be carried over to the Mac mini to untether the user from the mouse and keyboard.

Of course, there are many other features Apple could throw in. An intergrated iPod dock, a DVR software package, a digital audio output. But I suspect Apple will continue to market the mini as a cheap entry point Mac OS X machine for inquisitive Windows users and this will no doubt limit the features Apple can afford to add on cost grounds. I suspect last years ‘iHome’ rumors were 12 months too early and that this year we will see Apple make a push for that space under our TV sets.

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One Response to “4 Steps From The Office To the Lounge”

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