fatal flaws

February 24th, 2007

Apple now has three new rounded-rectangle shaped, media-related products:

  • Mac Mini
  • Apple TV
  • Airport Extreme

The small, compact form factor of each screams “put me next to your TV”. But what’s exasperating about these products is that by themselves, they all have serious, fatal flaws, and even if you put them together, they don’t make any sense.

I’m big on modularization, and always have been; as a kid, I bought all five of the Constructicons for no other reason than so I could build “Devastator”. Devastator turned out to be pretty flimsy shit, arms and legs falling off all the time — but the basic idea is sound, from both a functionality and a marketing perspective.

Sell smaller units that do one simple thing, and embed each with the emergent ability to combine with other products to do “more”, and you create a greater value surrounding your product line as a whole. There’s a reason Pokemon is still around after a decade, and it’s this: people have a deep seated need to collect ’em all. That’s why it’s so disappointing to me that even by combining these products, I still couldn’t get the media center I want.

Let me describe what I want, and maybe you want it too: my perfect media center is a perfectly quiet, small box that sits next to the TV. It’s not a full-on computer, as I don’t want another computer to manage. Instead, it’s instant-on, and it’s got a big fat hard drive, a remote, and the ability to play any music or video I can buy or scrape off the Internet. All my music files and all my video files can reside safely upon it, and I’m no more than three clicks away from playback of any of it via standard definition TV, HDTV, or my stereo.

That’s what I want, and that’s what my friends want, and right now, my homebrewed Xbox Media Center is filling that need nicely. Lots of people report good luck with MythTV setups as well*.

But both those projects require time, effort, and no small amount of luck, and with the genuine success of the iTunes Store Apple is uniquely suited to kick-ass in market. And yet to my mind, they still haven’t delivered what consumers want. Bear witness:

Product Pros Fatal Flaws
Mac Mini Plays any audio or video file via SD (Standard Definition) TV or HDTV. Somewhat clunky “Front Row” interface; not enough hard drive to act as central media archive.
AppleTV Instant-on; elegant interface. Only plays certain types of media; only hooks up to HDTV; not enough hard drive to act as central archive.
AirPort Extreme Allows for unlimited hard drive expansion via USB “AirPort Disk” mode; provides fast 802.11n wireless networking for rest of house.

No playback of any media; no AirTunes.

Notice how the pros are scattered throughout the three products? Isn’t it odd that Apple’s higher-end networking product lacks features the low-end “AirPort Express” model has? And can you imagine how cumbersome a “solution” involving all these gizmos would be?

For the sake of argument, you could keep your media files on the Airport Extreme, and play them the AppleTV or the Mac Mini — but in each playback scenario, there’s a tradeoff (elegance of playback v. codec support), not to mention you’ve also just shelled out another $100-200 for a big fat USB archive drive to hang off the back of your Airport Express like a bloated tick.

It reeks of inelegance. It’s not “Apple” at all; Apple historically provides the whole widget, or at least smaller widgets that click together with some semblance of sense. This shit is all over the place.


* I don’t know a single person (besides technology columnists) that actually have and use a Microsoft Media Center. Granted, I don’t know a lot of people, but often the people I do know are huge nerds who by default would be fairly likely to own one. And they still don’t.

10 Responses to “fatal flaws”

  1. cauley says:

    I can’t say much about the technical drawbacks of the systems you shat upon, seeing as I’m near AARP-level in my understanding of such things, but I know you wouldn’t dare speak that smack to Devastator’s giant metal face. Decepticons RUUUUUUULE!

  2. Jesse says:

    at the risk of being an apple fanboy (seems my opinions aren’t that popular around here these days anyways) I’d offer this:

    the missing key of the apple media system is apple’s bonjour (for the more technical, zeroconf networking, for the less technical, it just see things on the network and access them as needed – think of shared itunes libraries on your work network). The media isn’t meant to really live on the media “clients” (apple tv, airport express), but rather lives on your main computer, and the end pieces see your itunes libraries, and streams it, no config necessary.

    confession: there’s a healthy chance i’ve been helped form these opinions at daringfireball.net


  3. Jesse says:

    ps – i think you mean airport extreme

  4. Jeff says:

    FIXED. Thanks, Jesse.

    What you’re talking about closely describes the ad-hoc system I have now — with some music files on one laptop, some music files on another, and even more on the network. Without a way to index all the media, it’s an inelegant system, and it’s nearly impossible to manage a backup.

    Also, it’s in danger of overrunning my poor laptop hard drive. A couple years ago, the average person might have had 5-10 GB of mp3s and maybe a gig or two of movie files. But I’d wager that in 2007, the average user may have accrued way more that that, and it would be great to have a way to archive and manage all that stuff.

    Bottom line: video files are much, much larger than audio files, and I suggest that consumers’ appetites for downloading video are going to be curbed pretty quick if their only two options for keeping it around are to burn it to data DVDs or keep it all rattling around on their (smallish) laptop drive.

  5. Gene says:

    Agreed one hundred percent. The only consistent thing I glean from these products is that they only work correctly with purchased content from iTunes.
    Sadly, when I decided to buy a Mac Mini and use that to play my video files in the living room, the $600 expenditure was hardly a rebuke to Apple for crippling their media offerings.

  6. Ben says:

    How does a TiVo factor in at all? Or does a TiVo need to be hacked in order to satisfy the requirement of playing the media types you’re after?

  7. Jeff says:

    Ever since Apple started offering TV shows “ala carte”, I’ve resigned myself to give up on them offering a TiVo-style TV-recording solution; TiVo exists in a world all its own.

  8. cauley says:

    Not to take this in a different direction, Jeff, but do you have a problem with the ala carte system? I’m really just wondering, because I like it; I think it’s a step forward and I hope others follow the iTunes model. We haven’t had cable for years, but I’m sure I would have caved in eventually if it weren’t for iTunes. That said, all I want to watch is Battlestar Galactica and LOST anyway. If only there were individual NBA games available for purchase…

  9. Jeff says:

    I’m not crazy about the “ala carte” system, but that’s only because we shell out for cable every month — so I’m already paying out the wazoo for TV. If the AppleTV gizmo was a little more robust and flexible, I’d look seriously into replacing cable entirely with it, but for right now I guess we’ll continue to send Comcast their $70,000 a month.

  10. rachel says:

    Dang, Jeff, how many channels do you get?