Early this year, I wrote an article about why I don't think Microsoft's Portable Media Center is likely to succeed. Now that products have been announced (even if you can't actually buy one yet), it begs the question of how to make a product which would be the same runaway success in video as the iPod was in music.
The reason the iPod has been so successful isn't that Apple came up with something truly innovative. Rather, they took an existing idea (the portable MP3 player) and essentially perfected it with something close to the ideal combination of price, features, usability, and style. Then, they marketed the beejeebuz out of it. Replicating this success in video will mean starting over from scratch, not refining the existing iPod.
Start with the PVR
People consume video much differently than they consume music. Video isn't something you watch on-the-go (usually), and people have all kinds of display devices they prefer to use, ranging from old TV sets to HDTV plasma displays to (in my case) a used inFocus projector. So forget the built-in display and ultra-portability. Most consumers would rather choose a display which fits their preferences and budget. The need, rather, is to take control of video watching. Let the consumer decide when and how to watch video.
What I'm describing is a Personal Video Recorder (PVR), AKA TiVo. Just like MP3 players pre-iPod, early adopters have taken a shine to PVRs, but they have yet to go truly mainstream. The category is ripe for someone like Apple to come along and perfect it.
Add a DVD player
The other video problem most people have today is a growing pile of DVD movies. So, add a DVD player, and the ability to cache a DVD on the local hard drive (so you don't have to look for the disc every time you want to watch a movie). In fact, when you play a DVD, it should automatically make a local copy for future convenience. This is well within the scope of Fair Use, so there's no copyright problem (though the MPAA may squeal, and getting permission from the DVD CCA might present a problem). An 80-GB hard drive could hold quite a few movies, but 80 GB is cheap these days. 320 is more like it, and by the time the product is out, even more might be possible. Remember, we're not talking about a portable device, so we can use cheaper, bulkier drives. 320 GB is enough to cache even a sizable DVD collection.
Integrate with iMovie and MacOS
The other thing people like to use their TVs for is showing off videos of the kids. So tight integration with iMovie is a must. iMovie needs a new button which says, "Play on my big TV." A Mac should not be a requirement to use the product, but it can add a lot: a better interface for scheduling recording and organizing video, and a simple way to buy movies over the Internet. There will, of course, be the ability to download movies for $9.99 each from Apple's new online movie store (or maybe rent them for a week for $4.99).
Make it wireless
The connection between the product and a Mac should, of course, be via WiFi. But more than that, there should be the ability to stream the video output over WiFi, just as the AirPort Express lets you stream music. DVD video has a bitrate of something like 5-10 Mbps, so a 50 Mbps wireless link should have enough capacity to handle it. But now your TV set can be across the room or across the house, and you don't have to string wires. This is great for anyone with more than one TV.
Oh, by the way, the remote control needs to work through the wireless connection, too. But that's a usability detail I'm sure Apple would think of.
I would actually buy this product just for the wireless digital video connection alone, since stringing video cable between my DVD player and my inFocus projector (at the other end of the room) has proven to be a persistent nuisance. Long video cables have an irritating habit of picking up electrical noise, ground loops, and all kinds of other nasties.
A few other necessary things: it has to have at least one FireWire port for connecting a camcorder or external hard drive (320 GB won't be enough for some people). It needs to be dirt simple to set up, since a lot of A/V products have become cable-spawning demons. It needs to look really cool sitting in your living room. It needs to have a digital tuner built in. And it needs to cost under $1,000 (but maybe not by much), with no ongoing subscription fees other than buying/renting movies online.
So, Apple, how about it? I've already got several grand worth of your hardware in my home. Are you going to induce me to add more? I'll be happy to sign whatever NDA you'd like if you want me to be a project advisor.
(ASIDE: I've heard occasional rumors about a video-killer-project in the works at Apple, but I have no idea how credible the rumors are)
(ASIDE 2: As long as you've got the wireless-digital-video thing going, this product could be integrated into a next generation high-end iMac. The limitation on using a PC as a media center has always been the fact that the PC is often in a different room than the TV set, and cabling is an issue. Wireless eliminates that problem. Integrating the video product into an iMac gives a lot more wiggle-room in price.)
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