Apple’s Media Center PC End Around

by Chris Seibold Oct 17, 2005

Paul Thurrott is wondering where the outrage is. He argues that the new iMac with Front Row is a lame imitation of the Windows Media Center PC and opines that people should be lambasting Apple for blatantly ripping off a Windows innovation that has been around for years. If it were anything else, if Apple had released a subscription service arrangement for iTunes, if Apple had rolled out a Tablet Mac or an antivirus service he would have a point. He’d likely be correct, there is not much outrage when Apple borrows innovations from the Windows world. But in this case he is just plain wrong.

The source of confusion is easy to see, to the casual observer it might indeed seem like the new iMac is Apple’s answer to the Media Center PC. In fact some have called Apple’s new iMac with Front Row the “Media Center PC done right.” That description isn’t very accurate, if the iMac is supposed to be a Media Center PC it is the worst Media Center PC package ever produced. Not to list all of the deficiencies but picking two at random: no TV tuner, no PVR capabilities. Of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pretty fantastic computer but comparing the new iMac to a media Center PC is like comparing a sleeve of crackers to a loaf of white bread. Sure you can make a tasty treat by smearing peanut butter on either one but it’s hard to make French toast out of crackers and Cheez Whiz on bread is just wrong.

The big deal about the new iMac isn’t the remote, or the Front Row software the real news is what the iMac lacks and why. If you think for a moment the real news is the latest spoke in the digital hub: TV via the iTunes store. Now the absence of PVR software and a TV tuner starts to make a little sense. If you’re going to try to get people to voluntarily pay for broadcast television on their computer does it make much sense to include a TV tuner so they can simply record the show as it is broadcast? Not really. It would be a lot like making sure everyone attending a concert had a DAT recorder and then trying to sell said patrons a live version of the show as they were exiting the building. Not the deftest business plan ever devised.

What Apple has done with the iTunes update and the iMac revision must have left competitors the world over in a confused wondering just what the hell went wrong.  Here’s what happened: While everyone else was busy adapting their products to the way people already use TIVOs and VCRs Apple was asking an entirely different question. To the cynical the question is: how can we make a pile of cash off of this? To the naive the question is: how can we refine the experience to be something cool? The real question is: How can we, yet again, differentiate ourselves from everybody else while making some dough? Apples answer to that question is very interesting.

There are obvious objections to Apple’s strategy. Naysayers who will argue that 320 x 240 is inherently awful. And those folks accustomed to hi-def content have an excellent point, compared to Lost on a 42” plasma broadcast in HD the iTunes version is going to be less than attractive. But most people don’t have high definition televisions and most people aren’t video quality obsessed. To look at a similar example note that the iTunes music store sells songs in what is regarded by audiophiles (and unless the band is playing in their living room there is no pleasing the Audiophile) as a very poor, lossy format encoded at lackluster128 kbps. One question: How many songs has iTunes sold? So we can reject quality as a major issue, sure HD junkies like me will go apoplectic but the rest of the world will be satisfied.

Now we turn our attention to the issue of cost. One of the things people like about iTunes song offerings is the price: .99 cents each and an album for, generally, $9.99. With the television shows running two bucks a pop a season of Lost is not appreciably cheaper than buying the DVD. But those that argue that forget the one of the major reasons iTunes has sold a over 500 million songs; you don’t have to buy the whole album. The same is now true for video: Say you only want to see the episode of Lost where something freaky and inexplicable happens…wait…that’s no good, you would still have to buy the entire season. Imagine instead you only want to see the episode where Claire returns. Guess what? It’s a buck ninety-nine.

Now it is necessary to make a brief tangential journey. Twenty years ago everyone changed his or her own oil. If you even thought out loud about having one of the oil change places do it and you were a guy your elders would harangue you with ominous warning that “those places” would blow the oil out with air pressure. Or worse yet: switch Quaker State for Valvoline without telling you.* So changing the oil was something you had to do yourself because in that fashion you would be sure it was done absolutely perfectly. Somewhere along the line people started valuing convenience over the mythical perfect oil change. This love for convenience explains why the video selections on iTunes won’t be instantly obliterated by the video section of your local Target or downloads via bittorrent. People want easy and a lot of people (not most people, but perhaps enough) will gladly pay Apple a few bucks to take care of the hassle factor.

The most common objections aside, the reasons why it can’t possibly work rejected, we can finally address the real question: Will consumers accept the new video strategy? Well it hasn’t worked very well for Media Center PCs and while Apple’s system seems simpler on the surface you’re actually required to buy a new iPod to get the whole thing really shaking. People, as Apple computer should well know from their experience including DVD playing drives instead of CD burners years ago, don’t generally like to watch TV or movies on their computer. Apple’s strategy is an interesting end around of the Media Center but it is entirely unclear if it is an offering consumers will be interested enough to actually employ.

*I was exempted from this treatment. After rolling the family car down the hill with the oil plug out to drain the oil the easy way I was forced to take the car to an oil change place.


  • Of course, Apple wouldn’t release a complicated DVR system for users to hook up to theyr cable system, that’s beyond their design philosophy

    I’d say they wouldn’t up until the day they do.

    In other words, their design philosophy seems as much de facto as it is part of the design process.  It was against Jobs’s philosophy to release a video iPod as well, up until the day they released one.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • For clarification, would a “video iPod” be considered a video-centric device rather than audio-centric like the new iPod with video added as an extra feature?

    sjk had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 112
  • Here’s what he said as recently as last year:  “No one has the content.  And even if they did, the screens are much too small anyway.  So we think these products are wrong.  We think video is the wrong place, so what’s the right place?  Photos.”

    What about this does NOT apply to the current iPod?  Apparently the apologist explanatin is that the screen is much too small for a video iPod, but not a video-enabled iPod.  Now that’s just taking zealotry to a new low.

    There’s no question that Jobs flipped on his “philosophy” here.  That’s what Apple does.  They use “philosophy” to explain away a lack of features and then the Apple zealots loyally repeat those talking points.  For one, it allows you to sell fewer features at a higher price.  And second, it leads your customers to believe that you’re never adding that feature and they are more likely to buy your product instead of waiting.

    In this case, I’m glad he changed his mind.  I’m chomping at the bit to buy one of the new iPods.  I never thought the screen was too small or that video would really impact the way you listen to music.  This is the future of portable video.

    And btw, the screens that were “much too small” are bigger than the iPod’s 2.5” screen.  Go figure.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • Thanks, MacGlee.  Phrasing that question as a single sentence turned out more circuitous than I’d have liked. grin

    sjk had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 112
  • This is all getting out of hand.  “Who ripped who off?”  Who cares?  Ultimately we as consumers only benefit from strives to innovate based on either companies theft of one anothers products.  I am apparently unaffected by the marketing genius that is Steve Jobs.  Yes, he’s a great entertainer to be sure but (though I own stock in Apple) I have a hard time swallowing any CEO that starts every single announcement with sales figures.  Not every owns stock and not everyone cares.

    Having said that,  prior to June 2005 I had been a Windows MCE tester from almost the beginning.  I’ve watched as the project consistently failed to meet sales expectations and furthermore failed to generate almost any consumer word-of-mouth while the iPod was taking over the world as the hip device of choice.  I believed most of this was basically due to Microsofts massive mishandling of the software to begin with: that if you sell a consumer electronics device with a monitor, mouse, and keyboard - people just think you’re selling them another computer.  As of late MCE has only been selling better because MS has coaxed a number of companies into integrating it as the choice OS in more PC’s, NOT because consumers are necessarily looking for such a device.

    Enter Front Row.  Neat.  Wow.  So what?  Of the announcements made that day, this was the most interesting to me but also the LEAST covered by the press by a long-shot.  We, the Mac Geeks of the world, might be excited about such a system - a Mac that runs our entertainment for us, hell I sure am.  But here again it’s just not something that’s ready for primetime.  Stolen or not you’re going to see more and more attempts at this idea in the very near future until eventually someone comes up with the iPod or Tivo of the Media Center idea.  So far MCE comes up well short, after all it’s really kind of irritating to have last nights CSI interrupted by an AntiVirus update, and including Front Row ONLY on an iMac makes about as little sense as a two button mouse with only one button.  Time will tell, but I think both companies have their work cut out for them.  Apple in particular simply because they’ve never answered the PVR question.

    But for the love of God, get over the whole “who stole what from who” arguement.  I mean really, who the hell cares?  Yes, Steve Jobs will continue to think one thing while saying another, and Microsoft will continue to pursue world domination in areas it seemingly knows nothing about - but we all certainly reap the rewards.  Buy the crap you like and move on.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Oct 23, 2005 Posts: 112
  • and for the record, and getting ALMOST back to the original article, Paul Thurrott has been a wind-bag for as long as anyone can remember.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Oct 23, 2005 Posts: 112
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