Video iPod plus Front Row: Media Center killer, or shoulder-shrug?

Are you content with the content?


OK, we've got a lot of things to get through today, so let's get started. As Steve Jobs usually says, introducing another load of, um, stuff.

So on Wednesday he unveiled a desktop computer with a remote control; iPods that can play video; and an updated iTunes Music Store that will sell you videos, and if you live in the US, TV shows.

Three things, but five big issues to be dealt with, in turn: 1) Crippled is the new flexible! 2) Low-quality and portable? That must beat actually being good, right? 3) Paid-for is the new free. 4) We've never heard of this "Yoorp" of which you speak. 5) No, the phrase "exchange rate" means nothing to me.

1) Crippled is the new flexible!

"I don't think there's ever been a slide that captures what Apple's about better as much as this one," said Jobs, backed by a slide comparing two remotes for Windows Media Center products, each with more than 40 buttons, to Apple's remote with just six buttons, used to control the new "Front Row" system on the revised iMac G5.

What, Steve, you mean that slide says "We Leave A Load Of Useful Stuff Out"? For that's what the iMac G5 with "Front Row", which lets you watch your computer's media content from across the room, does. Those extra buttons on the Media Center remotes are for functions like changing TV channels. Media Centers can watch and record and pause live or recorded TV - HD (with limits) or ordinary. And of course on Media Center you can also browse your songs, photos, mounted DVDs and videos... the latter being about all that you can do with Front Row. It doesn't make sense; you have a computer and then you sit across the room from it, like a TV, but you don't watch TV on it?

But the Media Center itself is a not-quite-cooked concept as it stands, because you can buy a DVD recorder or PVR for far less than a Media Center PC. And they'll do pretty much the same thing, with no risk of being dinged by a virus. But, you say, if I buy a Media Center PC, I get a computer as well! Except you may find it's hard to use it for both at the same time.

What's the iMac G5-Front Row combo missing? A TV tuner, of course. Once upon a time, in the days of Michael Spindler (from 1993 to February 1996) when Apple did sell computers that had TV tuners built in, because people thought that would work. Jobs doesn't think so; hence no TV capability in modern Apple machines.

Michael Gartenberg, of Jupiter Research, isn't overwhelmed by Front Row. In fact he's barely even whelmed. "I'm a big fan of the Windows Media Center platform and personally, I want the TV integration as well as the access to recorded TV as a great source of legal video content. Why pay for an episode of Lost that I missed, when I can just as easily watch it on my Media Center PC, stream it via Orb or Slingbox or copy it over to my laptop?"

If Apple was serious about the 10-foot interface, which would mean getting serious about TV, then it should snap up ElGato, the German company which with EyeTV - consisting of software plus a separate tuner box - has figured out recording both analogue and digital TV streams for the US and Europe straight onto your Mac. They've also had EyeHome, which let you watch your videos and listen to your music and view your photos, for years.

Some think that this is a stalking horse for Apple to launch a video-on-demand service. The reality is that cable, satellite and terrestrial services will always be preferable, and the increasing use of DVD recorders and PVRs means that people can make their own ad-free programming, just by time-shifting a little bit. The TV will not become a computer.

Only if the computer can take over the TV functions, and do it better, will it replace that. But cable and satellite companies are moving faster than that, and they have the advantage of having huge amounts of content. Sky, for example, is planning to start doing things using its Sky+ box linked to broadband for true video-on-demand that will go far beyond what Jobs could wish for. Front Row might seem like a promising start, but there are two things working against Apple here: its tiny size relative to the rest of the market (there are about as many Media Center PCs sold per quarter as Apple shifts in all; and Media Center is a flop in the overall Windows world).


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