The Apple Digital Hub

I accidentally set my system clock ahead to 2020 while fiddling around with time zones, and then I received this email. I started to delete it as spam, but I kept it just in case….

High End Mac

Mac Lab Report

The Apple Digital Hub

Looking Back at the Early Days of Digital Hub Technology

Jeff Adkins – 2001.04.01

I accidentally set my system clock ahead to 2020 while fiddling around with time zones, and then I received this email. I started to delete it as spam, but I kept it just in case….

by Maury Flegelhosen, HubStyle Today

G4 CubeThe heart of the Apple Digital Hub (ADH) was a modified Cube with integrated AirPort wireless server and external Home Media Adapter (HMA). The original Cube was perfectly capable, as was any AirPort-enabled Macintosh, of serving as a host machine, but the additional stand-alone AirPort device reduced processor loads on the Cube to enable it to serve the multiple AppleSpokes which could be used with the system. Today, the original system can still be found on net auctions sites such as America OnLineBay and AuctioniMac. Individual AppleSpokes can be purchased, sans RAM and SuperDrive, for as little as $10 from used equipment resellers.

The Apple Digital Hub served as the nexus of all the incoming signals into early 21st century homes, combining cable television, telephone, and broadband (see cable modems, and DSL for more information) as inputs, and user terminals (called AppleSpokes), video display, stereo system output, and, of course, AirPort internet access.

Typically connected to the home theatre or sound system through the optional Home Media Adapter, which originally retailed for US$400, the Apple Digital Hub enabled users to convert formats freely as long as the output of the various audio and video components included digital or optical output. Users who had old-style analog connections between stereo components, such as RCA cables, had to purchase adapters from third parties to convert the analog signals into digital signals compatible with the Home Media Adapter.

The hosting Cube provided Internet access for up to ten AppleSpokes through the AirPort wireless access point, though in practice Apple never marketed more than three in a single package. The base system came with a 1500 MHz G5 processor, which was considered low-end at the time, 1 GB of RAM, an AirPort Plus card capable of reaching 50 MB/sec over a distance of up to half a mile (in the open air), and a 16 MB cache. The hosting Cube itself did not provide for an external display unless users connected the family television to it through the Home Media Adapter. Instead, users were expected to access and administer the host machine through the OS X 3.0-based AppleSpokes, essentially a limited form of the iMac Xpress device marketed briefly in the first decade of the 21st century.

The AppleSpoke and the iMac Xpress (the first iMac designed to use the OS X 2.0 operating system and not be backward compatible with OS 9 and below) both used the standard 128 MB of RAM, 50 GB hard drive, 1 GHz G4 processor, and SuperDrive that users of the day considered to be relatively low-end equipment. The difference is that the AppleSpoke did not come with built-in ethernet or with a modem (the iMac XPress did not use a modem either), since these technologies were considered obsolete by the forward-thinking computer company.

Additionally, the Xpress contained a SuperSmart media adapter for use with various Sony digital products, and despite many complaints from users, the SuperSmart adapter was eliminated from the AppleSpoke as superfluous. Additionally, the Xpress used a 17″ flat-screen display, while the Spoke used an older (and not as bright) 15″ display similar to the original Apple Flat Screen offered before the turn of the century. Finally, the Spoke eliminated the integrated web cam seen in the Xpress, at least in its first incarnation.

Users complained bitterly in the first incarnation of the Digital Hub system when they discovered their older AirPort cards were incompatible with the Hubs’ accelerated AirPort Plus system, so in its second incarnation Apple provided backward compatibility with the older systems, despite the obvious problem this caused in meeting AppleSpoke sales projections.

Nevertheless, the Digital Hub system defined home computing networks for a generation (read: seven years), eliminating the onerous task of dragging networking cable through the home and the tedious task of setting up and creating a home network from scratch. The Digital Hub provided several of the first types of technology use seen in the home, which was always a hallmark of Apple Computer:

  • First home network ready to use out of the box.
  • First multi-terminal home network available with a single purchase.
  • First network capable of recording up to a week’s worth of digital television for playback.
  • First network capable of generating completely lifelike simulations of family members for doorbell acknowledgment screens outside the home.
  • First network able to respond intelligently to home alarm system queries from police departments (properly equipped).
  • First network able to monitor energy use and reminder users throughout the home to turn off unnecessary appliances – or do it for them.
  • First computer system to fully implement Fluid Web Dynamic Language, adapting itself to the user based on Browser Interview settings.

The list goes on, but within five years, Microsoft implemented their new Home XboxMaster, essentially turning what started as a home video game console into a home networking hub control similar in purpose to the Digital Hub system. Dubbed the Digital Lifestyle Hub to distinguish it from Apple’s product, Microsoft formed alliances with homebuilders in several key states to ensure adoption of their new technology by having it integrated into the home at the time of purchase. In this way, Microsoft was able to implement the Digital Hub concept in large blocks of homes simultaneously and thus reduce cost through the power of mass purchases.

Thus, despite the fact that Bill Gates’ multibillion dollar estate was one of the first Apple Digital Hub homes – one of Apple’s early selling points for the system – Microsoft soon dominated the market, forcing Apple’s system into a niche market found only in small neighborhoods near Berkeley, California; East St. Louis; the Washington, DC Metro area; and some areas of Cupertino, California.

In some municipalities it was even illegal (see North America Today, July 25, 2009) for users to install a Digital Hub system in a neighborhood which had more than 75% Digital Lifestyle Hubs installed, due to conflicts from overlapping radio base stations.

Apple’s lawsuit in 2009 to halt XboxMaster production because of the wireless IEEE-34423 standard (“Yellow-Green Tooth”) conflicts with the AirPort Plus (otherwise known as IEEE-3000) standard failed miserably. By 2009, Microsoft had achieved an 80% market dominance over the Apple product, mainly by finally making the XboxMaster compatible with older Pentium-class machines still found in people’s homes and backwards compatibility with Radio Shack’s dominant remote control technology. Apple’s proprietary interface control box system was no match in price.

This was a testament to the marketing power Microsoft enjoyed before it was finally broken up by Congress in 2018 – after seven separate attempts starting in 1997 – and sold to various foreign interests to increase the national export/import ratio.

For other information on Apple Technology, see Gabrielle Knight’s Really Low End Mac site. Gabby, a teenager from California, has been running the site since her father retired last year.

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