You've caught me at a bad time, my friends: I'm undergoing a small crisis of faith. It's taken me a few years, but I've finally found an area of computing in which I look over the top of the fence that divides the vast, Teletubbies-like fairy glen of the Macintosh world from the fossil-fuel-based demi-apocalyptic Mad Max wasteland where the Windows folk work and then think “Damn. That looks like fun, over there.”
I'm not talking about the vehicles, but now that you mention it: sure… who wouldn't like to motor to work and play in a three-axled eight-wheeled battle sled? The problem, though, is that I'd plug my iPod into its cigarette lighter and while I'm battling chain-wielding motorcycle mutants, the original cast album from “Evita” would start belting from the loudspeakers, ruining the whole effect of the rust-plating and the spikes on the wheels.
We're not far from the nub of the matter, though: I'm worried that Apple is starting to lose ground in the Great Media War of the Twenty-First Century.
Mr Jobs is to be lauded for many things in his career. Switching from bowties to mock-turtleneck shirts as his signature “look,” to cite just one. But when he reclaimed the reins at Apple, he was quick to identify music and video as two areas that a smart company could truly make lots of coin from in the coming decade. The paint wasn't dry on his parking space before every Mac was sold with the best music-library app in the industry, and the easiest tools for creating and editing video – and these were just the opening act, with the iPod and the iTunes Store yet to come.
But what progress have we made since? Apple's forgotten that it's sound and vision. The music bits are aces, absolutely, but when we desperately root through all of Tiger's drawers and cupboards we eventually encounter a note, hastily-scrawled in Steve's handwriting, reading “I.O.U. one (1) solution for seamlessly managing and enjoying video programming.”
Granted, the problems of creating an iTunes for movies and TV shows are an order of magnitude greater than those of creating an iTunes for music. Every Mac has the built-in ability to handle audio CDs; none have the ability to deal with TV signals. And while DVD drives are standard across the board (or nearly so), DVD video is encrypted. Breaking the encryption is possible (just Google for a wonderful freeware app called HandBrake) but still, a single two-hour film easily eats up a whole gigabyte of storage – and ripping that DVD into a QuickTime file will take upwards of six hours.
But ripping CDs was nearly as inconvenient back in the early 1990s. Times changed. Technology caught up, and smart companies like Apple wanted to be ready when it did. It shocks and amazes me to be writing this – but this time, it's Microsoft, not Apple, that's making all the right preparations.
Witness: Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition. First released three years ago and finally mature and ripe after two major revisions, Media Center is an exciting articulation of the idea of the personal computer as an entertainment appliance. It behaves like any Windows PC (ie, like that slope-foreheaded kid in school who was kept back a year and receives poor discipline at home) until you pick up a remote control and press a green button. The Windows interface disappears completely (good start) and is replaced by an attractive and highly-streamlined set of buttons and icons, all of which can be read from the comfort of your sofa 20 feet away, and operated with a simple directional keypad.
If the PC has a TV tuner card, it'll record a hundred hours of TV shows automatically. If you have movie files anywhere on your hard drive, it'll locate, organize and play them just as easily as it can display the thousands of folders in your “My Pictures” folder.
And the OS understands that part of the coolness of having a computer get involved is that it makes your entertainment far more malleable. Wanna send that movie to the TV in your living room? Done. Burn last night's big season-finale of “The Sopranos” onto a DVD so you can keep it forever? Done. And gosh, this PDA of mine has a nice, sharp colour screen and a one-gigabyte memory card. Can Media Center please copy a few shows onto the device, so you can catch up on your talk shows during your morning commute? Why, Media Center would almost be offended if you didn't ask.
I have just typed the phrase “Microsoft gets it” and amusingly enough, a little auto-correct macro on my word processor changed the first word to “Apple.” Frightening, but true. If you're unimpressed by how head-over-heels-in-love Microsoft is with the thought of how house-wide digital entertainment can help the company make a Death Star-sized orb of cash – sorry, “help users get the greatest benefit out of the vast potential of the Windows platform” – just take a look at the design of the next-gen Xbox. Gaming is practically an afterthought (in this sense, they're copying Apple's attitude towards games). Every point in their announcement stresses how easily the new Xbox can locate media elsewhere on your network, and pipe it through your TV or stereo.
You're still smirking, so I'm forced to tell you that Microsoft is so desperate to pursue this market that the new Xbox will even let you use an iPod as a source of music files.No, no... it's OK. If you need to throw up, go off to the bathroom. I'll wait.
Here's what Apple's doing with video, or at least what it's willing to talk about: the latest version of iTunes has a completely undocumented feature that lets it play QuickTime video, if you drag the file into your iTunes library window.
Oh, and if you give a lot of money to the people at Elgato (www.elgato.com) you can buy a TV tuner that comes with some great VCR-like software, and a box for your TV set that'll send your Mac's audio and video into your living room.
Just try to imagine a computer with no networking features. A decade ago, that described every machine on the market. But soon, the advantages of networking became so compelling that a machine that couldn't do it became unsaleable. Computers that integrate seamlessly with television and stereos could be the new Networking.
What I really hope is that Apple has the god-damnedest rabbit hidden up its sleeve, and it's a lepus that can receive and record HDTV programs and seamlessly sync them to a new, £299 HDiPod. MW