• Don’t Dismiss an Apple TiVo!

    March 11th, 2006

    Yes, Apple VP Phil Schiller said those fateful words, that Apple didn’t plan on adding a digital video recording feature to the Intel-based Mac mini, because it would make the system too complicated. That would appear to shut down any rumors and speculation that such capabilities are forthcoming in future Macs, although you can get it from third parties.

    But don’t forget that Apple is notorious for saying it’s not going to produce a product, and then going ahead and doing that very thing months later. Take the iPod shuffle. One year before it was introduced, Steve Jobs said during a Macworld keynote address that they weren’t going to produce a music player with Flash-memory. They don’t have enough storage space, that people would just put them in the drawer and forget about them. Of course, when Apple was able to get such chips with sufficient capacity at reasonable prices, the product followed. Then came the iPod nano.

    Do you recall the statements at an Apple financial session in October of 2004, when executives said that they weren’t going to produce a sub-$500 computer? This time the window of deniability was much shorter, because the Mac mini followed just three months later. The video iPod? Should I go on?

    So why would adding TiVo-like capability to a Mac be such a chore? Can’t you do that now with Elgato’s EyeTV, Maglia’s TVMini HD and similar products? Well, this isn’t a matter of Apple supplanting or at least competing with third party companies. They will do that when it fits its corporate strategy, witness the iPod Hi-Fi, so never say never.

    But how do you reduce complexity? While those digital video recorders work pretty well on your Mac, they do have their limits. They are fine for off-air programming, for example, but cable and satellite reception is another matter. Cable is restricted to the unencrypted variety, which eliminates most of the hundreds of stations they offer, and I’m not aware of any direct support for satellite. To receive broadcasts via these sources, you have to connect the DVR direct to your cable or satellite box, which means that you have to tune them to the station you want before it’s recognized by your EyeTV or a similar product.

    Complicated indeed! You can see where Schiller is coming from.

    When I talked with the people at Elgato some months ago, I asked about another potential solution, the CableCARD. This is a PC card-sized device that is intended to ultimately replace the set-top box on your TV, because it allows you to connect your cable direct to your set and get full support for all available stations. More and more digital TV’s have them and they are also available through some TiVo and Windows Media computers. But Elgato wouldn’t commit to when this feature would end up on its own devices.

    Today’s CableCARD apparently works well, but it’s a one-way device. That means that it can receive the programming, but doesn’t support two-way communication, such as a cable provider’s interactive features, including the ability to order pay-per-view programming from your set with your remote. But we’re talking about CableCARD 1.0 here. Sometime this year, CableCARD 2.0 will arrive, and it will address many of those limitations and also offer the ability to tune up to five channels at once. Talk about being able to record competing programs at the same time!

    Once the new CableCARD products arrive, it will greatly simplify the ability to access all of your cable provider’s features on your TV and DVR. That might indeed answer Schiller’s concerns about complexity. All you’d have to do is order service from your local cable TV service, plugin their CableCARD, connect the cable, and you’re good to go. Add to that an elegant Apple-devised recording interface accessed via Front Row and you’d have a full-featured Mac video center that would smoke the PC pretenders.

    But will it come about? That depends, of course, on whether CableCARD 2.0 does indeed perform as seamlessly as its designers and the cable industry hopes. If it fulfills those hopes and dreams, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see support in some future Macs, perhaps the second generation Intel-based version of the Mac mini and iMac. In fact, I expect it will happen, even if Phil Schiller dismisses such possibilities right now.

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