The Datastick. Again.

Note: the datastick is a device I first encountered in Colorvision by Ron Cobb. While working on production design for Alien, Cobb assumed the crew of the Nostromo would carry around a device that was a combination flashlight, audio/video recorder, and computer. I incorporated such a device (along with standardized mass storage) into my science fiction setting. Reality has far exceeded any of this, but — at least since the Newtonnothing quite like the Datastick has yet emerged, even though it makes a huge amount of sense.

The 2008 MacWorld Keynote is fast approaching and of course there are plenty of predictions out there, along with John Siracusa’s keynote bingo. So I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts — more wishful thinking than predictions — as to what Apple might have in store for us this year (if not on January 15th).

Everyone knows Apple will release a 3G iPhone sometime this year, so that’s hardly worth mentioning. The pundits are pretty confident Apple will release an ultralight flash-based tablet and/or notebook, which I think may be wishful thinking. There’s also a patent-filing-based rumor of a new dockable liquid-cooled MacBook, which sounds interesting but unless it’s actually not quite what it seems is probably a little nuts. Who knows?

I think that the key factor behind every major Apple announcement since 2001 is convergence. The problem with AppleTV isn’t so much what it does or doesn’t do, so much as that it’s another damn thing. At least a Sony PS3 can play DVDs and blu-ray disks (your library of blu-ray disks is huge, right?). Again, as with cell phones, the key is to reduce clutter, cables, and complexity.

The problem with the AppleTV is that it is missing obvious functionality, including (a) a DVD player, and (b) a DVR. Oh and once you add a DVD player, a DVD-R seems like an obvious next step. Each of these functions would add very little to the bottom-line price of the product, but enormously to its desirability. (You can currently buy brand-name DVD-Rs for well under $200. I have one, and boy do I wish I had one designed by Apple. Of course, Apple already sells an AppleTV with a DVD, and even with a DVD-R — it’s called a Mac Mini — but it’s kind of a major price hike and it lacks HDMI output.)

Here are two major convergence points Apple is poised to exploit, and I hope we’ll see announcements accordingly.

The Truly Personal Computer: the Datastick

Here are several devices Apple’s customers pretty much all own and wish could be converged: phone, notebook computer, desktop computer, iPod. Even if a customer only has a phone and laptop, they probably have a bunch of peripheral crap they do not carry with them, so that — in effect — their notebook becomes a desktop by way of a bunch of tangled cables and hubs.

Apple will (I hope) release a convergence device that replaces all these things, or at least absorbs them. Think of a notebook with phone circuitry and bluetooth support that can dock into an iMac-like display. Fundamentally, the overlap between phone, notebook, and desktop computer is so great that you’re currently buying three devices and simply swapping data between them. And a lot of us have two or more desktop computers (one at home, the other at work, for instance).

Personal Server: the Hub

There’s a huge demand for a modular gamers’ Mac, but — as I and others have noted — anything too good in this category would probably kill — or seriously undermine — the Mac Pro market. There is a point at which killing the Mac Pro market would make a lot of sense, however, and this dovetails with Apple’s overall strategy (since the second coming of Steve Jobs) and that is to make a lot of money from high volume, high margin, low cost products (like iPods) rather than a rather smaller amount of money from low volume, high margin, high cost products (like Mac Pros).

Consider this next time you’re in Wal-Mart: to make a 5% margin on a $400 desktop computer, Dell has to ship a huge box to Wal-Mart and that box occupies a huge amount of shelf-space. In that same store, Apple is making 20% or more margins on iPod nanos that take up about as much space as a pack of 8 AA batteries, or a box of Zantac ($10 products sold on fairly low margins).

If Apple can converge a bunch of devices into a single, very compelling consumer device, sell it at a reasonable (slightly high) price, and make a solid profit, why that would be pretty amazing, no?

Here are a few devices Apple could converge into an xMac that would sell enough units at a high enough margin to justify gutting the Mac Pro market:

  • Windows PC
  • DOS PC
  • Macintosh
  • DVR / AppleTV
  • Console Gaming Device(s)
  • DVD Player / Recorder
  • MediaCenter / Digital Hub

If I were Apple I’d try something like this: build a big Mac Mini or a small Mac Pro with very strong onboard video as a BTO option, Cablecard support, HDMI, etc., a DVD-R, lots of RAM, fast hard disk, slots. This device has a standard wireless games controller as an option — ideally, it’s a shameless ripoff of the PS2 controller, and/or possibly the Wii controller.

This hypothetical product offers TiVo-like simplicity for timeshifting TV shows (but you need to buy a .Mac subscription — all of a sudden, .Mac looks incredibly compelling since it’s cheaper than a TiVo subscription and does so much more) but with the added bonus that .mac will let you watch stuff on your Mac DVR from your hotel room when on the road (and allow you to modify your season passes, etc.), you can effortlessly sync programs to your iPod, iPhone, iDatastick, etc., and you can (eventually — when the lawyers have done their dirty deeds) burn your favorite shows to DVD.

This new product also comes with a version of WINE optimized to play Windows games. It could easily be bundled with a couple of games that are known to work (e.g. The Sims). (The WINE component is already announced, and the necessary hooks for Leopard to support this have been revealed to already be in place.) Of course, you still have BootCamp for full Windows (and Linux) compatibility.

For bonus points, Apple could develop and include a PS1 and PS2 emulator (we know that Connectix knocked together a PS1 emulator in a few weeks and survived Sony’s lawsuit). If they were really clever, they could scale the graphics resolution so that PS1/PS2 games actually run at full resolution (something Sony could have done pretty easily with the PS2 and PS3, but chose not to for obvious, if stupid, reasons). Note that Apple doesn’t have to do this in spite of Sony — they could cross-license OS X to Sony for consumer electronics devices and get PS1/PS2 (and more?) support for OS X in return.

For more bonus points, Apple could include FreeDOS in a Window to run your old DOS games. In any event, the Open Source community could easily produce something that bundled VirtualBox and FreeDOS into a legacy DOS games platform along the lines of MAME.

Synergy

My original datastick concept missed one key technology — ubiquitous networking. The problem with the original datastick is that if you lose it you’re seriously screwed. But if the datastick is really just a local point-of-presence for your data store (which, ideally but not yet practically, is redundantly stored in the “Cloud”) then that problem (and several others) go away. In this case, the xMac is your “base station” where your main data (and, unfortunately, your backups) reside, while your MacBook/iPhone/iTablet … the thing I’m calling the Datastick … is essentially your portable client.

You do want two computing devices (Macs) and not a dock. You do not want your base station to have to access your main storage hub via the net — not just yet, anyway. And if you only have one computer and it docks when you’re home, then what’s going to talk to your 2TB of local storage when you’re on the road? What’s going to record Scrubs for you when you’re on the road, and what’s going to convert your near-DVD-quality video library to low-bandwidth streaming video on the fly so you can watch it in your hotel room?

Similarly, it’s great to be able to grab photos or video off a camera and do rough edits on location. Wouldn’t it be even greater if you could get all your data onto your main storage system from your hotel room?

So, each device is amazingly compelling on its own. One replaces pretty much every device you need to carry around with you and recharge, as well as your office computer, while the other keeps all your data in one place, backs it up, and lets you access it from anywhere. And all the groundwork is in place.

Let’s see what we see on January 15th.

NBC Universal and the iTunes Movie Store

This little bit of information is probably obvious to some people, but it wasn’t to me, and evidently has been missed by a lot of bloggers. Everyone who keeps track of Apple knows that NBC Universal pulled all of its video content from the iTunes Music Store. Depending on your various preconceptions, this is either a sign that Apple is doomed (of course) or that NBC is run by idiots (of course) or some random and elaborate conspiracy theory.

Today, on Sci Fi (which is part of NBC Universal), I saw an ad for Battlestar Galactica Razor, and noticed something interesting: it’s on HD-DVD. And suddenly, I realized exactly why NBC Universal pulled its content from iTMS. It’s Platform Wars, Episode IV: The Empire Strikes Back.

When you see HD-DVD, think Microsoft. When you see Blu-ray, think Sony, Apple, and most everyone else. That’s a little unfair. Some other companies with no specific Microsoft or Apple affiliation have simply been (or felt) forced to pick a side. Others, such as Toshiba, are trying to do to Sony what Sony has done to them. But you know from the existence of MSNBC that NBC has always leaned — hard — towards the Microsoft camp.

So it’s all about allegiance to the Microsoft DRM-everywhere camp.

I guess the “NBC is run by idiots” theory wasn’t too far off the mark.

The Amazon Music Store: Usability & Motives

Like many people, I like Simon & Garfunkel. And like a sizable proportion of such people, I like Simon without Garfunkel. And finally, like a not-so-sizable proportion of such people, I don’t mind Garfunkel without Simon. As it happens, I really like one of his most saccharine songs, “Sometimes When I’m Dreaming”. I’ve been looking for it for some time — I had it on vinyl, but I didn’t like Garfunkel enough to replace my vinyl with CDs, and I haven’t seen that specific pop song appear on ITMS.

Oddly enough, the album it’s supposed to be on is on ITMS, but that song is missing, and the album is not flagged as incomplete. Well, I thought, this is a great opportunity to try out the much vaunted Amazon DRM-free music store. Feel free to go try to find some stuff on the Amazon music store while I stay here.

Anyone claiming the Amazon music store is as convenient to use as ITMS (whether or not you have an iPod, I might add) is on crack. Oddly enough, it seems many of Apple’s uncritical “fanboys” are even bigger “fanboys” of anything without DRM and so have been singing the praises of a service that offers some notable bargains over ITMS while lacking range and convenience.

I’d certainly be very happy to buy stuff from Amazon versus Apple (once I *found it* using ITMS or store) to save money and/or avoid DRM — and I expect this is how Amazon will succeed — but Amazon should be recognised for the parasitic “Burger King” strategy it’s adopting on the usability side, and the motives of the cartel backing it which allow discounting and DRM-free music on the business side.

MacDonalds is famous for picking sites for its “restaurants” very carefully. Burger King is famous for placing its “restaurants” close to MacDonalds. Get the idea? Apple produces a market for digital music, fabulous tools for browsing, buying, and selling that music, and so forth. Amazon basically knocks together a half-assed website (e.g. when I tried to listen to tracks, it said I needed RealPlayer) but it offers discounts and no DRM. Exactly the way Amazon relies on brick and mortar retailers to let people browse and select books, it relies on Apple to let people browse and select music.

As for price and DRM-free music. Is Amazon offering the labels more than $0.70 per song? Apparently, the record companies which think Apple is greedy for only paying $0.70 per song in royalties out of its $0.99 less operational costs, R&D, marketing, etc. are OK selling songs encoded at double the bit-rate, DRM-free, for $0.10 less. Well, maybe Amazon is paying them a larger percentage, so let’s look at Apple’s DRM-free offerings ($1.29 each): presumably the music labels prefer to be paid some percentage of $0.89 by Amazon than $0.91 by Apple for the same track.

Wow, what does this sound like? It sounds like dumping! The most classic form of anticompetitive behavior by a monopoly or cartel (and the record labels are in fact both — since only one label has the rights to, say, Simon & Garfunkel’s music, and music by, say, Sting, isn’t a substitute). So what we’re seeing here is Amazon acting as a stooge for the music industry which would like to break the power of Apple’s ITMS by dumping their music through a rival channel.

Well, I wouldn’t be too concerned for Apple. First of all, Amazon has been selling stuff through its website since, what, 1995, and the user interface has been very slow to improve. Based on the current gap in usability between their MP3 store and ITMS, it will take them approximately forever to catch up, long before which Apple’s usability folks will have incorporated telepathy and precognition into ITMS.

In the long run the music industry is, to put it simply, dead. They can thrash around suing teenagers and setting up gigantic anti-competitive dumping grounds to what we can optimistically call their hearts’ content, but in the end, music has gone digital, digital stuff is easy to duplicate, and the music industry (as we know it) is an artifact of technology (vinyl records and CDs) that is obsolete. It didn’t exist before we could record stuff, and it shouldn’t exist now that recorded stuff is trivially easy to duplicate and broadcast.

Next Generation Computers

We’ve by now all seen the new iPods, and of course the iPhone. I also saw an interesting post on Mac 360 to the effect that Macs are kind of boring, with no real changes (aside from better performance) aside from the introduction of the Mac mini in five years. Good point.

The obvious next thing to fold into the laptop is cellular internet (3G, whatever). Having to stick a card into your laptop to get wireless internet sucks just as much as having to stick a card to use a modem or an external hard disk or whatever did five years ago, and Apple should address this. (My pet suggestion was to build Macbooks with an iPhone slot in them, but that would represent a huge waste of space for those of us, like me, who haven’t bothered with an iPhone).

It seems to me that there are, broadly speaking, three niches for computers today: desktop, inconveniently portable (i.e. notebooks), and conveniently portable (i.e. pocket-size). There’s also the data storage unit which may or may not have playback and ancillary devices attached (i.e. the “datastick”, a.k.a. iPod).

I’ve been shopping for audio recorders lately, and this just reminds me of the fact that we all still need a datastick, and the iPod still isn’t a datastick. The iPod classic isn’t because it doesn’t have a small general-purpose computer in it, although 80GB/160GB of storage is just dandy. The iPod touch isn’t because it doesn’t have enough built-in storage and/or removable storage. Neither have convenient cameras and audio recorders built in, and, frankly, both need built-in speakers — even if they’re crappy.

So this would be my computer lineup (in a perfect world):

Desktop

Mac Pro (like current Mac Pro, but smaller, second CPU optional for base model, ~$1500).
Mac Mini (like current Mac mini but a bit bigger — room for real video card and hard disk).
Mac Nano (like current Mac mini but possibly Flash RAM based and smaller)

I think the iMac is intrinsically evil — because it makes you toss a good monitor when your cpu starts to age. Build monitors with a bracket for a Mac Mini/Nano instead.

Laptop

MacBook Pro (like current MacBook Pro, but provision for internal cellular internet, new style keyboard, CPU is a Mac Nano which can be swapped out / docked.
MacBook (like current MacBook, but Flash-based and thin).
10″ MacBook (Flash-based)

Laptops can function as iPhones/cellular net devices if you have the optional receiver (as with Bluetooth options a few years back).

Pocket

Pocket MacBook (Basically a clamshell iPod touch with faster cpu, slightly larger screen, real keyboard. Oh, and it’s an iPhone too.)
iPhone/Mac — but fully unlocked, doesn’t pretend it’s not a Mac, can work with keyboard accessory which doubles as a stand and dock.

In Summary

Apple should completely blur the distinction between Mac and iPhone and iPod Touch — making the halo effect irrelevant. There are 100,000,000 iPods out there. If 25% of them get replaced, turn those 25,000,000 new iPod users into 25,000,000 new Mac users. Declare victory. Withdraw from Iraq… Oh wait, that’s part of my Steve Jobs for president rant… Never mind.