From Boob-Tube to iTube

I love soccer, a sport better known as football to most of the world. Of my handful of life passions, it is the one I can claim to love despite my not being particularly good at it. In all of my other passions I tend to be better than the average bear. Nonetheless, I enjoy soccer enough that I founded and, to this day, coordinate an adult recreation league. My fellow players not only allow me to play as a striker -- they even humor me by allowing me to score some goals. Personally, I think they do so to keep my interest high enough so that someone other than themselves will do the dirty work of coordination. Regardless, each game for which my aging body finds itself fit enough to play is a joy, at least until the next day when the soreness kicks in.

I have played for many years, but did not start young enough to make any kind of mark on the sport. I probably could have made a high school or college team, but would have spent more time watching from the bench than participating on the pitch. The highlight of my uneventful career was playing in an international intramural league in college. One of my good friends in my program was from Cyprus and was nice enough to cajole a place for me on the Greek/Cypriot team. It was here, playing with and against Europeans and South Americans that I came to appeciate how the game was supposed to be played. The American game is getting better all the time, but we're probably a couple of generations from being truly world class.

In the past few years as my body has become less able to play more once a week, I've filled my old playing time with watching time. Specifically, I like to watch European league games and national competitions from just about anywhere. The latter are especially enjoyable if I can catch the Brazilians or the Argentines playing. Major League Soccer, which is the professional American league, was not something I'd choose to watch, for the reason noted above. Until recently, that is.

I now watch Major League Soccer, but mainly because I can enjoy it in the stunning clarity of 1080i high definition digital television. The play is better in the European games, but in terms of feeling a closeness to the game, nothing can hold a candle to that being broadcast by HDNet each week from the spring through the fall. High Definition increases my enjoyment of the game immensely. Enough so that I am watching American soccer and enjoying it.

In fact, I have become a High Definition convert, perhaps even a High Definition snob. Beyond the Daily Show and a small handful of other shows, there is nothing I watch on "legacy" television. If I don't have something in mind when I turn on the set, I scan Fox Soccer channel and the High Definition channels. If I don't find something to watch, the set goes off. Yet, the adoption of the new technology seems to be experiencing a slow uptake. The industry bemoans the additional cost of production, the limited number of available sets, limitations in distribution and who knows what else as the reasons to adopt the technology slowly and carefully. Nonetheless, I cannot believe that I am alone in having a serious demand for pervasive High Definition programming. And, as the number of HDTV sets increases, I cannot imagine that the demand will not explode.

This whole scenario reminds me of the iTunes Music Store, which seems so obvious in hindsight, yet was so enlightened when it was introduced. The notion that people would want legitimately purchased music that was easy to access with predictable technical quality at a good price seems so obvious that it is inconceivable to me that the iTMS was a revelation. Yet it was. Just look at all the lame-brained attempts to sell "Internet" music prior to the iTMS. It took an innovative outsider to see the potential of commercial Internet music. Sadly, it will probably take the same outside innovator to show the entertainment business how to capitalize on HDTV.

Which brings us to the iTube. A whole lot of speculation has been made about why Apple is making the switch to Intel. A whole lot of that speculation centers around Apple's consumer electronics business as opposed to its Macintosh business. As someone who has used a PowerBook as his main computer for over a decade, I understand exactly why Apple is making the switch and I am damn excited about it. The PowerPC 603s were decent chips, but nothing to get really excited about. The G3s were fantastic, clearly the shining moment in the history of PowerPC. The G4s started out looking full of potential, but supply problems and technical limitations due to Motorola's targeting of the embedded market kept them from realizing their potential. The G5 is clearing exciting for desktop and server users, but the laptop and consumer markets have been pretty much left behind. Ultimately the problem that Apple has is that I am writing this article on a five year old PowerBook G4 that I would have replaced two years ago if there were a PowerBook G5 or even a PowerBook Dual G4. I am ready, but not for the current G4 at the prices Apple is asking.

So for me, it's go Yonah, go! And the sooner the better. I will buy a dual-core Yonah-based PowerBook the moment Apple is willing to sell me one. Of course, this has nothing to do with the iTube, and that is exactly the point. I do not think the Macintosh's shift to Intel has much of anything to do with Apple's non-Macintosh business whatsoever other than potentially some relatively minor cost savings. The shift is about knowing there's a processor future that Apple does not need to worry about and does not need to invest in. Apple's Macintosh business will likely evolve into a situation where the electronics are designed by Intel and package by Apple. Apple is moving towards the economics of Dell, but with style and technical elegance. Where Dell lacks any semblence of either aesthetic taste or technical innovation, Apple will build nice looking machines that eschew all the legacy crap, including the "why hasn't someone slain this beast yet" PC BIOS. They'll be Macintoshes in every sense of the word.

But, let's get back to the iTube. Until Steve Jobs got the recording industry to give us all the chance to legitimately get music via the Internet in the way we wanted for a reasonable price, we either stole the music, overpaid for their traditional product by buying entire CDs for one desired song, or went without. Unfortunately for the industry, a lot of people chose the former. My sympathy is limited, however, since they failed to sell me the product I wanted in the form I wanted for a price I was willing to pay. Simple business.

I don't see the HDTV market of today any differently. I would like to get European soccer games in High Definition. I'd like to be able to pull up the second season of Arrested Development that I sadly missed as I did not know the show's greatness until given the Season 1 set of DVDs as a gift. I would like to enjoy more movies in the pristine quality of High Definition. But, I need to be able to do all of that on my schedule. Despite Time Warner Cable's slogan that "now anything is possible," the simple fact of the matter is that their service is at best a compromise. If they don't provide it, I can't watch it. Add in the potential mess with DVD-HD and Blu-Ray and the future is bleak even for content that I can go out and buy. Just like with the music industry, there's a definite market that is poorly served but that has the potential of blossoming into a rose with the right application of technology.

I truly have absolutely no insider information, but based on rumors and a decent understanding of the state of various technologies, here is what I think might be possible, with Apple an ideal company to pull it off. There's no opportunity for a real value-add in video outside of HDTV, so we write off the possibility of Apple just getting into the business as it exists today. However, we know that Jobs is enticed with HDTV and we know that Apple will look to innovate in its own unique way, which means pulling together a collection of complex technologies and making it all easy.

Here's how I see it. Apple has said that it will not do a video iPod and it won't for two good reasons. First, nobody really wants to watch video on a two inch screen, or even a six inch one, despite what some of the cell phone producers might tell you. Second, the iPod's tiny hard drives are just not capacious enough to make video worthwhile at their current cost. But it doesn't matter anyway, since video does not gain the same benefits as audio from portability.

That said, the Mac mini does seem like a perfect device for home video. It's small and attractive and would fit it nicely next to a DVR or a game console. It's quiet as can be, yet it has a decently powerful processor and can hold a decently-sized hard drive along with a DVD writer. Content can be delivered via Ethernet to the included port and that DVI port can be easily swapped out for HDMI. Get a chip in there that can decode 1080i H.264 fast enough without overheating and enough disk space to hold a bunch of movies/shows/sporting events and we're starting to have something. Finish it off with a Blu-Ray writer to save stuff that we want to archive, keep the price about where the Mac mini is now and we've got ourselves an iTube.

But the iTube is of limited benefit without content. Since the world already has Tivo and DVR, neither of which frees us from the restrictions of the existing broadcast paradigm, Apple would not be smart to follow along this path. They need to create the equivalent of the iTunes Music Store for video. To do this, assuming that the hardware problem has been fixed as per above, they have two obstacles to overcome. The first is technical in that American broadband is probably nowhere near ready for transmitting HDTV on demand and the current cable and telecommunications companies are most likely reluctant to sign on for a service they don't control. The other problem is that content producers are scared to death of piracy through Internet distribution. The latter is probably easier to fix.

In the long-term the bandwidth problem will be solved on the Internet. However, that long-term is likely longer than Apple care to wait. Instead, it may want to utilize a hybrid system where broadband is used for browsing and purchasing items from a video library while satellite is used for distributing the huge amount of content. Perhaps Sirius or XM or one of the satellite TV companies have some spare capacity to sell. Or, perhaps, Apple chooses to spend some of its huge cash hoard and buy one of the above.

To appease the video producers, Apple needs to create a FairPlay type of system for video. It seems that FairPlay has worked out pretty well from a security perspective for all involved. Despite my preference for DRM-free music, I can't say that I've run against its limitations as a user. While there are programs that will strip the protection off of music bought from the iTMS, it is not widely used and I doubt that the legitimately purchased music represents any significant proportion of what the file swappers are exchanging.

With video Apple could even go with a tiered sales system. If you wanted to burn a copy of a program for unlimited viewing, then you could pay a higher price than someone who wanted to enjoy one or two viewings. And, with a Blu-Ray writer installed as part of the iTube, the industy does a nice end-run around the DVD-HD versus Blu-Ray wars. The consumer chooses what he or she wants and handles the writing of content themselves. Likewise, a live sporting event can have one price while a day old one can have a lower price. This may have the effect of increasing the audience for sports.

The real advantage comes to the consumer, though, as this is a service that people will want. From my own personal perspective, I'd love to pay for and receive only the content I was interested in. I'd love to be able to get content that current distributors can't sell me through cable, which is a whole lot of European soccer in my case. I'd love to get certain TV shows that are economically viable on DVD. In a nutshell, I want my iTube.

The Apple-Intel deal is probably more like this than anything else. The Macintosh is growing and will continue for many, many years to come. But it's a part of Apple's future that is declining proportionally. As such, Apple will want to divert its engineering resources to new products. Thus, it gets an eminently dependable provider of computer technology in Intel to do the processor and logic board design for its products. Intel gets a real partner in the home entertainment market. Clearly Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are not going to buying Intel chips for their living room devices, so Intel needs a customer with serious potential to succeed in this market. With Apple's retail precense, the huge success of the iPod, and its history of making complex technology simple for mere mortals, Apple is a nearly ideal partner. To top it all off, I'm certain that if any of this is even remotely close to the truth, Apple has a sweet pricing deal for Macintosh, iPod, and iTube chips. Everybody wins. It'll be fun to see what actually happens.