Mac Musings

TiVo Points to Apple's Next Market

Daniel Knight - 2002.10.10 -

The Apple II shaped personal computing, the Macintosh redefined it, and the PowerBook became the model for all future laptops. Newton paved the way for the vastly more successful Palm.

The introduction of the SuperDrive has created a generation of digital hub machines that handle everything from instant messages and email to tracking your favorite iTunes and mastering your own digital movies. And the iPod shows that Apple knows what it takes to create a successful consumer product.

What Next?

Much as I and many others beg Apple to add one more product to their matrix - a compact desktop machine without an internal monitor - it seems that His Steveness doesn't want Apple filling that niche. I guess we'll keep upgrading our beige G3s with processor upgrades, better video cards, and fast/huge Ultra100 hard drives along with the controllers to support them.

Keep coming back to Low End Mac for information on getting the most out of your old desktop Macs....

The Newton lovers and Palm carriers long for an Apple PDA. Some want it to be a 21st century Newton. Some want it to run the Palm OS. And some think Apple would be nuts to use the Newton OS or Palm OS when OS X already has Inkwell. But Apple has resisted thus far, and it may already be too late to carve out a new niche between the Palms, Pocket PCs, and new Tablet PCs.

The third option bandied about is the iPhone. It's a cell phone. It has Bluetooth and iSyncs to your Jaguar-equipped Mac. And it has an Apple logo. Of course, that would undermine Apple's partnerships with Erickson, Sony, and others, so I don't expect it to happen any time soon - if ever. Besides, the money is in the phone service, not the phones themselves. Apple is wise to sit this one out.

TiVo Time

The iPod was successful for several reasons, and the size of the Mac market was not one of them. Nor was the Apple nameplate. Apple produced a better MP3 player - a brilliantly simple design, more storage, a faster connection to the computer, complete integration with software Mac owners already had - made it function as a FireWire disk drive, and took their place as a preeminent player in the high-end MP3 player market.

It's time to do the same thing with television.

In an article on Slate, Brendan J. Koerner tells us that TiVo is "destined for the ash heap of history." His argument is that the first company in a field pays the price for innovation by watching oßthers profit from their ideas. Like Sony Betamax, Atari, Amiga, Newton, and nearly Apple Computer itself.

It is the copycats who succeed, those who stand on the shoulders of giants. Microsoft's DOS stood on the shoulders of CP/M, and where is Digital Research today? Microsoft's Windows stood on the shoulders of the Mac OS, and how big is Apple's market share today? Palm built on the shoulders of the Newton, and Apple pulled the plug on Newton years ago.

Apple didn't invent the mouse or the graphical user interface; it stood on the shoulders of geniuses when it created the Mac. Apple didn't invent MP3 players, but the iPod could not have been created without seeing the successes and mistakes of others. The iMac itself was really little more than the rehashing and colorfully swoopy repackaging of all-in-one computers such as the Commodore PET, TRS-80, and Xerox Star.

It's time for Apple to stand on the shoulders of TiVo and create the next generation set top box. Mac OS X, iMovie, and QuickTime 6 already provide most of the software needed. The high capacity hard drives necessary have become low cost commodities. And the horsepower to drive such a device is trivially expensive.

Inside TiVo

For those still living in the VCR age, TiVo represents a huge step forward in technology. Instead of tapes that are huge, need to be stored somewhere, and wear out over time, TiVo digitally records television broadcasts to one or more hard drives inside the TiVo.

TiVo is built from off the shelf parts: Quantum IDE hard drives (12.7 GB in the 14 hour unit), a 50 MHz IBM PowerPC 403GCX processor, a Sony MPEG-2 encoder, an IBM MPEG2 decoder chip, a little memory (32 MB), a v.90 modem, a TV tuner, circuitry to handle all the conversion between digital and analog, and the Linux operating system.

In basic mode, TiVo records about one hour of video per gigabyte of hard drive space. The high quality mode (6 MB/s instead of 2 MB/s) uses about 3 GB per hour.

You can easily upgrade an existing TiVo by adding a second IDE hard drive or replacing the B drive in a two-drive TiVo. You don't need a lot of speed; any old 5400 rpm drive should do. Those $100 80 GB drives will give you 75-80 hours of normal quality or 25-30 hours of high quality recording.

Today you can buy a 60 hour TiVo for US$299 after rebate. And then you'll pay $12.95 per month or a one-time $249 fee to access the TV schedule.

Apple Can Do It

Because the MPEG-2 encoding and decoding is handled by hardware, CPU horsepower is not an issue. The stock TiVo uses a 50 MHz PowerPC, so the CPU from any current Mac is more than adequate.

Apple already buys hard drives in bulk, and they have an OS that's every bit as robust as the Linux inside TiVo. And they have the computer design expertise to go way beyond what TiVo is doing.

The basic unit could be very similar to today's TiVo - a hard drive, hardware MPEG-2 encoding and decoding, a tuner, a remote control - but with several Apple differences. The OS would be Mac OS X, not Linux, tweaked for the resolution of today's televisions and tomorrow's digital TVs. In addition to cable in and video out, it should include ethernet and USB at a minimum, and possibly FireWire as well.

The device should have two drive bays, with each drive on a separate bus. The motherboard should have room for a daughter card that would allow the main unit to record to one drive and the hardware on the daughter card to record a second program to the other hard drive.

In terms of hardware, iMovie should be adapted to Apple's personal video recorder. This would let users edit out ads before archiving content.

There should be room for an optical drive. With just a CD-ROM, users could add sound tracks to their home movies. With CD-RW, they could create their own video CDs. With DVD-ROM, this could become a DVD player for those who don't already have one. With a Combo Drive, users could watch TV, digital video, or DVDs - and record their own video CDs.

And at the top, an Apple PVR with a SuperDrive would let users create their own DVDs from either television content or personal videos. (Analog video input is a must for all of those old home movies on VHS and 8mm - and output so you can copy your movies to VHS for all the DVD-deprived relatives.)

In addition to two internal hard drives, Apple could build FireWire into their PVR and make it easy to add removable storage.

Instead of charging $12.95 per month like TiVo, Apple should design their PVR so it can be programmed independently like a VCR - or connect to the .mac server for both regular broadcast programming and the ability to record streaming QuickTime. (Yes, imagine being able to save your own copy of the next Stevenote....)

And then imagine being able to watch your recordings on any Mac on your home network - or even copy them to your 'Book so you can watch them on your next trip.

But digital video is just the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond PVR

The next step is to turn this into a real digital hub, since it will be plugged in and drawing power 24/7. What if you could add a module that would let it act as a cable modem, use the phone modem as backup if cable goes down, and use DHCP to let all the computers on your network share an Internet connection. Add an AirPort card to that module, and you've got a wireless base station.

Add a wireless keyboard (infrared? Bluetooth?), and you've got a device that could more than compete with WebTV. Put some real browsers on this OS X Box that are tweaked for TV resolution, use the hard drive for caching, include a real email client (already part of OS X), and you've got a compelling reason to leave WebTV behind.

With file sharing enabled, this could also become the family file server, a place to store your iPhotos and MP3s, and a server for your USB printer.

Here's another idea: Let is serve as a network version of .mac for use with iSync so you don't have to use an Internet connection if you don't want to.

I think there's great potential for such a device. Apple could initially market it as a TiVo competitor, but those who don't already have a DVD player would find the upgraded models very attractive - two functions in one unit.

For videographers, the ability to input digital video via FireWire or their old analog tapes via video jacks, then edit in iMovie, and then export to DVD or video CD or videotape would be a compelling reason to consider Apple's device instead of a single purpose device such as TiVo.

Then factor in a shared Internet connection for all the Macs and PCs in the home, being able to serve QuickTime video from the PVR to any networked Mac or Windows PC, an AirPort hub, and a family file server to the equation, and you've got a box that could easily start at the $400 mark and build up to a $1,000 plus system.

The iPod paved Apple's way into the consumer marketplace. A device like this would let Apple drive right down that road and create a new niche market for digital hubs that will grow for years to come.

Further Reading