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.


  • Chris, I am somewhat critical about the attitude that we shall not be too critical about sbd. selling crap quality just because the majority of consumers doesn’t give a rat’s ass about quality in general and will happily buy said crap as long as it is more convenient. In the end one has to defend oneself against ignorant flamers if one advocates quality. In regard of video - dang, my 20” iMac does 720p! Of course, movie-trailers in 720p are a bitch to download compared to the regular 480x260 ones, but the quality makes up for it. I tend to notice & appreciate quality. But then again, I use Apple computers.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 371
  • I’ll tell you what Bad Beaver I see your point. I’ve got a 20” Cinema display and a 42” Plasma TV and I. personally, love the HD content on the TV and full screen stuff on the computer monitor. But, since I am somewhat biased towards the HD I asked some neighbors and such to watch a movie at 320. They all thought it looked fine both on the computer monitor and on a regular TV (19”).

    The experience left me befuddled, I had done the experiement precisely so I could be really critical of the resolution. But people were fine with the look. I was disturbed because A) I had already written most of the column and this would force a rewrite were I honest and B) Why was the quality important to me and not anyone else?

    In the end I went the results of my limited experiment but I am still surprised that people could watch that less than mediocre picture and call it fine. Yet there you have it. As for me, I think I’ll stick to DVDs for now.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 354
  • The few TV downloads, which are only available in the US presently, do not represent the growth potential of video on the iPod. Rather it is individuals and companies using the now more easily available visual mobile technology to communicate.

    Think more in the terms of video blogging or videocasts. Subscribe to a RSS based dating service with live visual “promos” of a lascivious single searching for a geek partner automatically downloaded to your iPod.

    City tours. Soundseeing is passé. Have visuals for museum tours with close-ups of the details of a particular painting or fresque commented on by an art historian.

    Instead of sending a postcard or an email from Tasmania, let them subscribe to a periodic vicast of your travels (or travails) to hear the ear-splitting cries of the Tasmanian Devil while you can just make out its glowing eyes in the semi-darkness near your tent. See first hand video casts of the latest cataclysm, instead of just reading about them on a blog.

    Ok, the technology is not new. But iTMS makes it easier to disseminate and the new iPod makes it easier to look at while on the move (public transport or backseat.

    Johnny66 had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 13
  • I think there’s a lot of worthwhile speculation in the above article, but I just don’t think it goes far enough.

    Don’t forget that the iPod may only be one vehicle for viewing the videos (besides the screen of the iMac itself, that is). How about the much-rumored Airport Express variant with video out - or, come to that, the also rumored iHome product, a proper set-top box?

    Personally I think the new iPod in conjunction with the new iTunes and video is pretty much a strategic play to get a product out there and claim the space for Apple, to stop anyone else getting in there with a killer product and gaining an advantage.

    Just because the current videos are only 320x240 in no way means that all future offerings will be similarly low-resolution. As broadband connections get ever faster there will be no obstacle to much higher resolutions in the future, and in time our choice of viewing for an evening may become totally determined by what we want to see (and pay for) rather than what is being screened.

    Apple’s vision could be that you use your computer to select and line up the viewing, which you then watch on whatever device you choose. iTunes may offer the option for one-time viewing as well as for downloads for repeated viewing, which could mean different prices for these different modes of use.

    Given that Apple has gone out and said that the future is HD, it’s hardly likely that they would stop at 320x240, is it?

    There’s much more that I could add - just think more laterally, people!

    Nick Collingridge had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 3
  • Well, I for one love Cheez-Whiz on bread.

    zzcoop had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 8
  • Chris, did you *also* show them HD content in comparison?

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 371
  • The point of this article is good, and I see it, and I agree with it.  However, syntax is really getting in the way, and was more distracting to me than the point the article was trying to make.  This seems to be happening more and more here at applematters.  Know that the articles you publish are going to be read by Apple fans, and Apple fans are usually a little bit smarter than the average human being, and thus more critical.  “a live version of the show they were on exiting the building”?  “iTunes has sold a bover 500 million songs”? Just two blatent spelling and syntax examples that really distracted me form the point you were trying to make.

    Jim Caruthers had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 13
  • I remember taking a funky aesthetics class in college where the professer spoke about how with television (because of the technology) the viewer takes a more active role in assembling the picture line by line whereas in movies the whole picture is projected at once onto the screen.  At the time I was intrigued by this idea, and I wonder if it has any bearing on the resolution issue.  One could argue that since the viewer is putting the picture together in his head, he invariably is enhancing and filling in what is actually being transmitted, in which case the actual resolution initially may not be as important as we would like to think…

    domarch had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 12
  • When I can get episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then we’ll be in business.

    foresmac had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 20
  • I must be getting old, but I’m not interested in a TV tuner in my PB when I take overseas business trips, nor would I pay for one to attach to my 20” iMac.  I’ve got TVs for the home and hotel rooms some with them.

    The only time having access would be nice would be when there is a major news story - like Katrina hitting New Orleans.  Having CNN or another station opened in a little window at work would be nice, but that really should be an internet feed going out at the same time as the cable broadcast.

    MacKen had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 88
  • zzoop,
    That is disgusting. You should be ashamed (I kid, you eat your cheez however you like)

    Nope, I felt that showing them HD content would spoil the experiment. Plus I’m planning on charging for watching in the future.

    That’s on me. For some reasson it is getting harder and harder to catch the mistakes even though I am putting more and more effort into the editing. I need a new system. Thanks for pointing it out.

    To everyone else:
    I find your points compelling, I like the notion of video postcards via iTunes and I am sure with time there will be better formats offered. Yet, like MacKen I am not sure I need a TV hooked to my mac or if I even want TV content on my computer.

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 354
  • Let’s not forget that nothing is developed at Apple unless it receives the full blessing of SJ and he has consistently opined that people have no interest watching TV on a computer. He has argued that every attempt has failed to bring a multimedia box to the market due to lack of consumer interest. One can speculate whether this is his own personal agenda and ego (remember the one button mouse?) or if his position is firmly rooted in test marketing. Although those of us that use Mac’s appreciate the inherent entertainment value in our computing experience 95% of the market is still Wintel and is waiting to be enlightened. Until that day dawns Ma & Pa are more likely to plop down in their respective rocker recliners and reach for the remote instead of a mouse.

    sewer_urchin had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 1
  • 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.

    As soon as MS starts allowing you to download movies in WMC, the outrage will return.  “Look, MS is letting you download TV shows, just like in Front Row iTunes! Why can’t they ever come up with their own ideas?”

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • I think in 12 months or so when 802.11n has been ratified, sending HD video around the house will be an easy task, but not until then. I believe this is when the much talked about Airport video streaming device will come out.

    I agree with what most people have said, and I too consider myself to be an audiophile, so 128KBps is insufficient. I usually buy the cds and rip them using Apple Lossless or if AAC, at least 192KBps. But I also know I am the exception, not the rule and most people are not audiophiles and would consider the amount I have spent on my home audio system to be obscene.

    Similarly, I much prefer HD than standard def and can’t wait until there is lots of content. We are still waiting to see what happens with Blueray and HDDVD not to mention negotiations with film studios about what will be fair use. At the moment we are not entitled to copy a DVD even though we own it (I know people do any way) let alone stream it round the house, but hopefully this will change too.

    And bandwidth. It is currently prohibitive to consider downloading via the web GBs of HD movies, but I’m sure this will change too. I have ordered my new iPod video capable 60GB (in Black) and can’t wait. I have become addicted to podcasts and started to watch a number of video podcasts. I can see commuters being more than happy watching a music video on their iPod or a recent episode of lost while riding to or from work. You’ll still have the enjoyment of catching the show (at your convenience) or enjoying your favorite music video and it’ll certainly kill the travel time. I also think Front Row is great. It’s really simple to use and has enourmous potential. Let’s wait and see what happens.

    Dazzzz had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 1
  • “...he [Steve Jobs] has consistently opined that people have no interest watching TV on a computer.”

    Just as he consistently argued that Apple will not make a flash-based or video capable iPod. When SJ says Apple will not make use of a certain technology he either means “as of yet, because we still don’t know how to implement it” or “until tomorrow’s media event, because we want to confuse rumour sites”.

    martunibo had this to say on Oct 18, 2005 Posts: 37
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