When Steve Jobs held a mini Mac on his fingertips Tuesday, what did you see? A low-priced “crippled” version of its bigger brothers? A device designed to lure away budget-minded consumers from Windows machines?
Maybe. For now.
What I saw was the future of Apple Computer: A device that fits anywhere in the home and hooks up to any screen that can handle digital input.
Lots of Windows-side executives are making big noise about producing machines for the living room. They call them “media centers.” A few are on the market. Some get good reviews.
But Jobs is the first executive, in the view from here, to really give a carrot that will pull along the move to convert the living room to digits.
His first easy-to-use “media center” machine is the iPod Photo, released last fall. It, of course, is a handheld hard drive. It plugs directly into the back of a late-model TV, throwing up slide shows on big screens effortlessly, music track backgrounds and all. For the typical mother, father, teenager or child, this is a new form of digital entertainment, playing off the great and greatening storage capacity of computing technology and the existing economics and display capacities of analog electronics.
The Mac mini now becomes the platform that can slide directly under the TV, even if Jobs isnt saying so. As it surely adds storage capacity and memory capacity, it will soon be in position to replace the cable TV box, the stereo receiver box and the VCR/DVD player on the shelf under the big screen in the family fireplace room, the playroom or the basement.
Jobs does not leave much to the imagination to see how this will take place. Apple is also the only company in the digital industry to really begin to solve how all sorts of new forms of digital content will be organized, presented and easily retrieved by everyday users. This is no small matter, given the volume of online text, still images, audio and video that already exists and is doubling faster than any of us can comprehend.
In this case, the product, already delivered, is iLife, Apples pretty “seamless” software suite that allows the average person to manage huge digital playlists of music, create and sculpt large libraries of digital photos, develop and edit digital movies, and even build professional sounding songs from scratch.
So look at what iLife really is, sitting on a Mac mini under the TV. It is a digital content manager, connected to the kind of screen that is used outside the corporate and home office. Youd be a fool, were you Jobs and his cultural as well as product design accomplices at Apple, not to turn iLife in future incarnations into a channel switching and storage management system for the rest of our electronic lives. This can and should be the IPTV box as well as the device and software that helps everyday individuals get across the chasm from analog habits to digital entertainment capabilities.
So what does all this have to do with Google? This suggests that Apple and Google within five years will be clashing in the center of this disappearing chasm.
Apple and Google will each be trying to act as the spigot and control point of choice of nontechnical humans everywhere for handling the flood of digits coming onto home screens. Google will support its thrust through profits on advertising. Apple will support its thrust through profits on hardware. But they will meet in the middle.
You have to believe that Google CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are working on their own mechanisms and interfaces for delivering more types of digital content, in easy-to-find fashion, on home screens. The Images tab is just the first inkling of this. The scanning of books at important libraries is another clue.
Their approach is to get all this stuff onto big honking hard drives and then let you search the drives any way you choose with any key words that come to mind. However, lest you forget, Google also is trying to figure out how to do what iLife does: keep track of important stuff on your personal computer hard drive and let you find it easily.
Googles results have worked best with text. Google has yet to show its hand on how it will work with more kinds of visual imagery than still photos and illustrations. But you know a new, big thought is coming there.
Conversely, Apple comes at the same problem of harnessing huge amounts of digital stuff by figuring out the end point first: how to best display and present stuff you contribute. Then it backs up to work through how it can help get you there. Next up for iLife will be a way to display the best stuff that comes in from the Web, probably tailored to settings you easily manage. Call it, maybe, the iNet portion of iLife.
In any case, the two companies will be competing to be in control of the next generation of digital media life, when entertainment and information from in-home and remote hard drives, as well as broadcast and cable signals, are blended onto the same screen.
Stay tuned. These are the companies that are the best at reducing the complexity of our digital lives into screen displays that are simple and inviting to use. They are the two companies most devoted to looking at the digital universe from the consumers standpoint and delivering products and services that play to that, effectively.
Should be quite a dust-up. Let the fun begin.
Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is Editor in Chief of Baseline. He can be reached at [email protected]