30 November 2005

How important is this?

Over at Ars Technica today are two interesting articles. The first is the usual high-quality review - this time of the XBox360 by Ben Kuchera.

The second article is a provocative piece by Ken "Caesar" Fisher on why Apple won't be producing a DVR anytime soon. There are a lot of comments on this piece too, should you be interested. Many of the comments give some interesting alternative views too or further back up Ken's take on it.

Now the latter is a subject I'll cover more soon (yawn) as anticipation builds up uncontrollably towards MacWorld 2005 in a little over 6 weeks time. On balance I agree with Ken at the moment on this, though I don't agree with all his reasons. But I particularly think the timing isn't right for a DVR built-in. Ken only considers US requirements which themselves are problematic (wait for CableCard 2.0 for instance). European and other markets have yet more options which makes it hard to satisfy everyone with one technology. (And, for those that want DVR, it is available via various 3rd party devices that will meet the needs of the differing standards/markets especially if FrontRow is extended to support/integrate with these).

But let's say that the other speculation (primarily from Think Secret) he refers to IS close to accurate - an Intel Macmini with FrontRow, and possibly the video-capable AirportExpress2. This will clearly be Apple's play for the living room and convergence. And that's why I linked to the other ARS article. Because the XBox360 is a key component of Microsoft's strategy for the same market.

Now it is clear that for the most part the XBox360 is getting pretty good reviews as a gaming machine and indeed the XBox Live features may turn out to be very compelling indeed for gamers. And, no doubt this will be a huge market. But, apart from the poor DVD playback and the aesthetics (which I personally find awful, though others don't), there is one key point I'm reading consistently about the XBox360 which makes me question it's suitability for the living room environment. It is clearly dealt with on page 5 of the review (wow, did you see the size of that power brick on page 1?). It is the heat and the commensurate cooling requirements of this machine. I wonder how many living room environments this will be suitable for?

On the other hand the mini (today) is so incredibly quiet and cool. Sure it won't do the things it needs to as a complete media centre hub (though I'm pretty happy with it as a single room device serving DVD's, Live TV, Recorded TV, Music, Photos and Web). It is equally at home on display or tucked away in relatively small cupboards. I would be surprised if Apple compromised these aspects of the mini with the Intel version.

And here's where I'm leading. On the one hand we have the XBox360, the first MS product built using the PowerPC architecture. On the other, we have the Mac mini, the first(?) Apple product to be built using Intel technology. A complete volte-face for MS AND for Apple. Now, the mini is as yet unannounced, and we have only conjecture. Is it a case of the grass looking greener for either vendor? I don't think so. But, it is becoming clearer to me by the day how important Steve's points about the performance per watt he made when announcing the Intel switch.

If you're a gamer, or you have family members in the house who are gamers, then perhaps the XBox360 is the right device. But if you're looking for the "iLife on your TV" experience (music, tv, videos, iPod integration, photos) then the mini is likely to be a product that can be more easily incorporated in many homes. If Apple can deliver on an "extender" product too (eg the VideoAirportExpress) - one each required for each TV in the house at a reasonable price point, this becomes a much more compelling argument for most people than hot XBox360's in every room.

Now, there are other factors, to which I'll return soon. Chief among them are price (remember the XBox is essentially subsidised by sales of content, the mac will not, so XBox will appear cheaper); MS intertia (MediaCenter sales alone exceed total Mac sales); and DRM/Content provision - limiting the scope of what can be done officially and unofficially with a media centre. These are pretty much stacked against Apple today.

But Apple's switch to Intel is starting to look like a truly inspired move.

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