My Turn

Apple: Above and Beyond the PVR

Danny Ricci - 2002.12.30

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

There's no doubt about it, Personal Video Recorders (PVRs), such as the TiVo, have changed the way many people watch and enjoy TV, but there are many more people who simply don't understand the advantages of current "smart" TV recording devices.

How could Apple redo the PVR and make it as successful as the iPod?

There have always been rumors of Apple reentering the PDA market or trying to compete with Microsoft's Tablet PC. But as some people have pointed out, the Tablet PC is still new and really isn't a viable replacement for a laptop (despite Microsoft's advertising hype), and the PDA market seems to be shrinking more and more each quarter as new PDA-like mobile phones are released.

But the PVR market, like the MP3 player market before the iPod, is still new and dominated only by the tech savvy people of the world. An Apple branded set-top PVR, if done right, could create an entire new section of the "Digital Hub" and compete head on with not only the TiVo, but also the Microsoft "Media Center" PC, and even the Xbox.

Standards

With the release of Mac OS X, Apple is strongly embracing open standards such as Bluetooth, Rendezvous, 802.11b (WiFi), USB, MPEG 4, MP3, SyncML, vCards, vCals, OpenGL, and FireWire. This allows devices of all kinds to communicate with computers in various ways; the only limiting factor is software and driver availability. Here's some real world examples of how Apple and their products use standards:

  • The iPod uses two popular standards, Apple's own FireWire and the popular MP3 music format.
  • With the release of Jaguar, Mac OS X is Bluetooth-ready, allowing both synchronization of mobile phone data (using the SyncML standard) with data stored on the computer and Mac-to-Mobile Internet access.
  • AirPort, based on the 802.11b standard, made wireless Internet a popular network connection for businesses and home users. Before 802.11b was popular, many users were forced to use nonstandard methods such as phoneline networking to let machines communicate in places where long ethernet cables were not an option.
  • With Rendezvous, machines and devices can talk to each other and configure themselves automatically. Applications like iTunes and iChat can talk to each other and share data instantly. All of the major printer manufacturers are supporting Rendezvous in their future network printers, making difficult network printer setup a thing of the past.
  • With FireWire and USB, devices such as printers, scanners, game controllers, and data storage drives can work right out of the box without making you worry about your computer having the right ports.
  • MPEG-4, as introduced to the world in QuickTime 6, eliminates the need for proprietary media players and will enable people and devices, no matter which platform or OS, to share video and audio.
  • iCal can publish in the standard vCal format, so any calendar application can view and modify the calendar data and still be able to send it back to its originating application.
  • vCards, as generated by Address Book, allow individual and business contact information to be shared digitally, without the need for paper business cards that can easily get lost. Like the other standards, the vCard is not assigned to just one single Address Book program, allowing anybody on any devices and platform to view, modify, and share the contact data.
  • OpenGL is a big part of Mac OS X, used in just about every screen saver, as well as the Quartz Extreme rendering process. It's also an important base for every major 3D game on the Mac.

With the above standards and Apple's Unix-based Mac OS X platform, all the pieces of the Apple PVR puzzle are there - they just need to be put together. For the product to be successful, Apple would need to make the machine better than the TiVo.

Seems impossible? With Apple's innovation and standards support, it could easily be done.

Putting the Puzzle Together

First, Apple would need a set-top box. To start, there are two obvious needs: A processor and a hard drive. A G4 processor (say 500 MHz) would probably work nicely for most PVR tasks, and any standard hard drive with at least 20 GB capacity would do. To add to that, we'd need some type of video input/output. Regular RCA-style cables for input and output would function for the majority of users.

Now we need a way for the PVR to talk to the device it's controlling - USB ports, anyone? With USB, Apple could create an "IR Blaster" device to manually change channels on a cable or satellite receiver or allow a USB-to-USB connection to current Digital Cable and Satellite receivers (a direct connection would provide greater channel-changing accuracy than an IR blaster, which is subject to interference).

What about channel listings and schedules? How about a vCal file! How do we get the vCal file to the set-top box? Do we need to worry about having a phone line or ethernet cable near the TV? No, we have AirPort to give us on-demand Internet connectivity!

What about the remote control (you know, the thing every TV watcher worships)? Do we need to stick with old-fashioned Infrared line-of-site remote controllers to control this set-top box? No! Simply adding Bluetooth to the remote and set-top box would give us a good way to control the machine from your recliner without having to aim at the PVR.

The last thing is the operating system. Guess what? Because of the choice to use standards in the device, Mac OS X would be very easy to customize to run an Apple PVR. The only major changes would need to be to the GUI. Aqua would have to go to make room for a lower resolution, TV friendly, onscreen navigational system.

Simply add the QuickTime 6 guts on top of everything, and we have our media recording and playback system. With MPEG-4's compression and scalability, the device could hold much more audio and video than competing PVRs that use larger file formats (such as MPEG-2), while still having great audio and video quality.

Controlling the Device

Next, we would need a recording scheduling system. What if iCal let you view and schedule TV listings on your Mac and then sync this up to the set-top box via iSync and Rendezvous? You could use your big computer screen and mouse/keyboard for most of the scheduling process, eliminating the need to strain your eyes (and nerves) navigating channels and program information on a low-resolution TV screen.

Rendezvous with iApps

Sound good enough yet? We know Apple will soon be releasing a new Rendezvous-ready version of iTunes to "stream" your music to other network user's playlists (without the need to copy the actual audio files, to keep the RIAA happy).

What if the set-top box could pick up your iTunes playlist and stream the music through your TV and stereo, the same way other network Macs can? You would never have to worry about finding the right CD again or changing the CDs every time you want a different song on a different album or by a different artist. You'd have your favorite music on your custom playlists going through your home theater speakers, without the need to run a long wire from your headphone port to your receiver!

What if iPhoto and iMovie were Rendezvous-ready? You could broadcast your wedding photos (edited and organized in iPhoto) or your son's first steps video (edited in iMovie) directly to your TV. There wouldn't be a need to waste time and money on DVDs for something you may only want to view on the TV once.

Gaming Console?

Say we added a FireWire port and a 3D accelerator chip to the set-top box. And what if we used the FireWire port to connect a CD drive, and either the USB ports or Bluetooth to support joysticks or other game controllers? Can you say, Xbox killer?

With the Mac OS X core and OpenGL, it'd be fairly easy to port any Mac OS X game to the machine, and it would create new business for game porting houses like Aspyr and Mac-only game developers like Pangea.

Also, if Apple included authoring tools for the device with it's free Developer Tools package, anybody could create their own games for the machine, letting a world of wannabe console game makers have a chance to have their talent noticed, the same way regular software developers have their work noticed on sites like Version Tracker. This is something that no other game console allows due to steep learning curves, expensive development systems and tools, and licensing fees.

Conclusion

The point of this article is not to speculate on what devices Apple may or may not be creating, but to point out what Apple could do at any time with low R & D costs and little effort, thanks to their support of open standards, and their Unix based OS. But with a little of Apple's famous innovation (and marketing), a device such as this could be successful with both geeks and the average consumer.

For more musings on this subject, see TiVo Points to Apple's Next Market.

Share your perspective on the Mac by emailing with "My Turn" as your subject.


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