Mac Musings

Television for the Rest of Us: Why Apple Should Make a DVR

Daniel Knight - 2004.04.05

Is Apple elitist?

That debate has raged since the days of "the computer for the rest of us" campaign. Did Apple intend the Macintosh to be an information appliance accessible to all or a niche product for those who wanted something better?

Regardless of Apple's intent, the Macintosh has become a niche product for discerning users, a better and generally more costly solution. Ditto for the iPod, which has half of the market for portable MP3 players that use hard drives - the luxury end of the market.

Steve Jobs is also an elitist, driving change for the better. His first computer after leaving Apple, the NeXT Cube, didn't have a floppy drive - and that was ten years before the iMac became the first successful personal computer that didn't have a built-in floppy drive.

Under Jobs, Apple has steadfastly avoided the low end of the market, where most Mac users believe the Macintosh hardware and OS X could make solid inroads if only Apple offered a machine without an internal display that could be close enough in price to Windows boxes to attract attention.

Through pricing, market share, refusing to compromise quality, and just being different from Windows, the Macintosh platform has been marginalized. Most people view it as something odd on the periphery, a solution for graphic designers and nobody else.

The Mac has an elitist aura.

Hello, Apple, We Do Watch TV

Nowhere is this more evident that in Steve Jobs' view of Mac users and television. In the February 2004 issue of Macworld, he states, "We don't think that televisions and personal computers are going to merge. We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on."

This from the guy who gave us Buzz Lightyear, Nemo, and DVD drives in iMacs (at a time when the Windows world was adopting CD burners for their MP3s). And then he gave us iMovie, iDVD, and SuperDrives so we could create and edit our own content.

The whole digital hub concept should cover a bit more than digital photography, personal music collections, and turning your own video footage into DVDs. With the tools at hand (QuickTime, iMovie, and iDVD), why not let us record TV programs to our hard drives, edit them, and create our own collections of our favorite shows?

You see, Steve, it's not that Mac users don't watch television, but that we think different about it. We're selective. We have favorite shows that we're passionate about. We want our own Dr. Who, Star Trek, or Sliders collection - and if we can do that by recording off the air instead of paying for commercial DVDs, that's great.

I don't know how many Low End Mac readers use BitTorrent, which has been widely viewed as a way of illegally distributing copyrighted movies, songs, software, and TV shows. It's a fascinating subculture that my sons introduced me to.

One son downloads anime that's not generally available here in the States. Another uses it to burn VCDs and SVCDs of Wonderfalls, a quirky new Fox program that we've all come to enjoy. I've been downloading Monty Python and Sliders, a couple of old programs that just aren't available on TV.

I also use my VCR to record my favorite programs, such as CSI, so I don't have to worry about missing them. I find I can record a one-hour program and watch it in 45-50 minutes by zipping through the ads.

A growing alternative to videotape is DVRs, digital video recorders such as TiVo, which use a hard drive to store programs, allowing users to zip through ads even faster. I've looked into TiVo a few times - it would be great to record dozens and dozens of shows on a hard drive, never have to change tapes, and be able to access any of them without using the fast forward or rewind buttons.

I've seen some awesome deals on TiVo, such as $180 for a refurbished 140 hour unit. The drawback is that you pretty much have to subscribe to the TiVo service at $12.99 per month or $299 for the life of the hardware. That's a bit steep.

Yes, I realize there are hacks, but I don't really need programming. Too bad the current TiVo hardware won't let users do their own programming.

An Apple DVR

If there's an affordable alternative to TiVo that's subscription free, I have yet to find it.

I believe the market is ready for such a device - not a computer than can record TV, but a dedicated digital video recorder that doesn't require a subscription and can be networked to your home computer.

Apple could make out like a bandit with such a device. Like the iPod, it would open a new market for Apple.

The basic Apple DVR might have two 3.5" drive bays, a 40 GB hard drive, a "lite" version of OS X, ethernet, and a Bluetooth remote control. Users could add a second drive, just as many TiVo users do today.

DVR users would be able to program the device themselves, but Apple could also offer programming through a .mac subscription. Those who already have .mac accounts would receive this as an added bonus, and a lot of people who own Macs but don't have .mac accounts might sign up after buying an Apple-branded DVR.

The base unit should be expandable and include simplified versions of iMovie and iDVD so users could add a CD-RW, Combo, or SuperDrive; edit out the ads; and archive their favorite programs. By using FireWire and a full version of iMovie, this DVD could also be an editing machine for home movies.

Mac users would be able to log into the DVR and copy their favorite programs to their Macs, where they might edit them on iMovie and burn them to CD or DVD with hardware they already own.

Perhaps Apple could create a way where any networked computer with QuickTime could received streamed video from the DVR, giving Windows users a way to view programs on their PCs.

By adding an AirPort Extreme card or second ethernet port, the DVR could become a router and firewall for a home network. It could also provide networked storage space for files used on more than a single computer.

Thinking different, Apple could design a Bluetooth remote using the iPod's control disk. By using Bluetooth instead of infrared, there would be no need to point the remote in the direction of the DVR.

The DVR hardware could be optimized for video and the "lite" version of OS X. No need for a super-resolution video chipset. No need for gobs of memory (although one RAM expansion slot would be nice). No mouse or keyboard required.

Such a device would be a digital video appliance, just as the original Mac was intended to become an information appliance. And just as the Mac liberated us from the typesetter and the iPod from the CD, and Apple DVR could liberate us from the tyranny of network scheduling.

It could also add to Apple's brand visibility and bottom line.

After the computer for the rest of us and the music player for the rest of us, I think the video recorder for the rest of us would be a runaway success.