Much of the consumer technology world was abuzz last week as Microsoft unveiled its Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 software, a fancy name for a version of Windows that enables a computer to serve as both PC and digital entertainment center.
Supposedly the Media Center PC represents the long-awaited "convergence" of PC technology with such traditional home entertainment center components as the TV and stereo.
While not introducing new technologies, the Media Center PC's primary selling point is that it combines existing technologies in a more user-friendly -- and thus consumer-friendly -- way.
More than 40 hardware manufacturers, including Dell and Sony, announced last week that they'd be making PCs capable of running the media version of Windows (it will not install on a PC not designed to run it).
When you want to switch from using the PC as a PC to using the PC for some sort of home entertainment, a button on the remote control invokes what is called "10-foot mode." In an instant, the computer screen is transformed to a multimedia menu easily navigable from the comfort of one's couch.
From there you can watch a program previously recorded to the PC's hard drive, edit and print photos, or listen to digital music.
It all sounds perilously similar to Apple Computer's so-called "digital hub" strategy, and yet so far there has been no Mac equivalent to the Media Center PC. Shouldn't Apple be defending its turf?
Perhaps the fertile minds in Cupertino have deemed a Mac version of the Media Center PC too risky. After all, although the Windows version hasn't flopped, neither has it become a mainstream product.
Since the return of CEO Steve Jobs to the helm in 1997, Apple has done an excellent job of choosing very carefully which consumer product categories to embrace and which to avoid.
For example, Apple has declined to re-enter the PDA market (it abandoned the pioneering Newton series back in 1998), with Jobs calling it overly competitive. Similarly, Apple has not heeded suggestions that it build a cell phone or a Mac version of a Tablet PC. In each case, Apple concluded the product category was too risky.
When Apple does move into a new product category, such as the iPod or even the iTunes Music Store, it has done its homework and is confident of success.
Does a Mac Media Center make sense for Apple? Going by the Microsoft model, probably not.
Almost every news article reporting the freshly released revision of Microsoft's Media Center software noted that the high cost of Media PCs they start at about $1,000 and range up to $3,000 makes them a tough sell to the mass market.
Then there is the potential conflict within households between the member who wants to use the PC to surf the Web or Instant Message pals and the member who wants to use it to watch a recorded episode of "Fear Factor."
Still another lurking disadvantage to the Media Center PC is that it can suffer from some of the issues common to any Windows computer, particularly if it is frequently used as a regular PC.
"The Achilles heel is that it is a PC and is subject to the problems of a PC with driver or software conflicts that can cause problems with media center applications," said Van L. Baker, a vice president and analyst with the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner G2. "Most people cannot tolerate disruption of their television service due to a software conflict."
Yet Baker sees both Media Center PCs and TiVo-like devices as a "large and growing niche. Specifically, this is a great PC for the digital media enthusiast."
Because a Media Center PC seems to embody its two-year emphasis on the use of the Mac as the digital hub, Apple needs to consider harnessing its renowned design abilities to come up with some sort of media-handling device, though not necessarily a full-fledged Mac with a new name.
Rather than simply imitate the Windows Media Center PC with a Mac version, Apple could develop an entirely new product, intuitive and elegant, that would draw upon the best features of the Media Center as well as digital video recorders like the TiVo.
In addition to a hard drive for TiVo-like storage, the device would be able to play and burn CDs and DVDs.
Such a hybrid device, at a cost preferably under $500, would not be a standalone Mac, but rather a bridge between the entertainment center and the Mac. The key would be the use of Apple's Airport Extreme wireless technology to link what I'll call the MediaStation to one or more remote Macs.
The device would have standard audio and video ports to plug into a TV or a standard receiver in a home entertainment center. It would not have a separate monitor, but would generate menus on the TV screen accessible via a remote control.
The MediaStation would be able to access video content via a digital cable connection or over the Internet via Airport Extreme. Access to the iTunes Music Store would be built in as well. And an Apple Movie Store, as I suggested in a column a few months ago, would complete the package.
With such a device, Apple could leverage its vertical integration in the home entertainment sector much as it has with digital music. Apple already has many of the pieces in place, and the concept dovetails neatly with the company's focus on the high-end consumer market.
With a built-in Airport Extreme card and running a scaled-down version of Mac OS X, the MediaStation would use Rendezvous, Apple's zero-configuration networking technology, to communicate with any Macs on a home network.
The extra bandwidth of Airport Extreme about five times more than the 802.11b standard used by the original Airport and PC's using Intel's Centrino technology would enable the smooth streaming of music from a user's iTunes library, images from iPhoto as well as video files.
Ideally, the MediaStation would be able to access data on Windows PCs as well, but only those that will have adopted Airport Extreme's 802.11g standard. The cross-platform capability would ensure a larger market for the device, just as with the iPod, while its integration with the Mac would ensure that Mac owners enjoy the superior experience.
The overall requirements of this setup would be steep -- a recent G4-based Mac running Mac OS X with Airport Extreme as well as an Airport Extreme Base Station but not outlandishly so.
The results of a consumer poll conducted by Jupiter Research of Darien, Conn. and released last week indicated that an Apple MediaStation could be just what people want. While only 34 percent of the respondents said they'd be willing to download TV content to watch on their desktops, 51 percent said they'd be willing to record content on their PCs for playback on their TV.
"Apple could enter this market if they wanted to very, very quickly," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "But Apple will only enter the market if they think there is money to be made and they have a good, refined solution."