Tuesday, January 08, 2008

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 Newton -- nothing 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.


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.