Bahamut's Lair

Golden Convergence

In January 1998, Bahamut was born on a discussion board inhabited by Mac professionals. Since then, Bahamut has been responsible for a series of predictions regarding the on-again, off-again relationship between Apple and television. To inaugurate Bahamut’s Lair, let’s go back over some of these predictions and see why they are still relevant to Apple today.

Over the first few months of 1998, Bahamut described a mysterious device called the Apple Media Player (AMP) that was intended to interface with your TV. The AMP had a long legacy – from the Apple/Bandai Pippin venture to the MacTV to the Apple Interactive Television Box of 1995. In regards to the last, the official manual for it stated: “With the Apple Interactive Television Box (Apple Interactive TV Box) and the services of an interactive service provider, your TV is no longer something to just ‘watch.’ Now, you can take control of your TV set, using it in many exciting new ways.”

Now, the Apple ITV would have been provided by Apple in tandem with the cable company. This feature gives it a much more important legacy than the Pippin, which was mainly intended as a game-playing machine. The AMP was something of an improved version of the Apple ITV box. Hooked up to a TV, but outfitted with a built-in modem for dialing up to the Internet and a CD drive, the AMP would have been well-suited for playing Video CDs (VCDs), a format popular in the overseas markets, and for playing Enhanced CDs. If you haven’t encountered an Enhanced CD yet, check out your collection – they may already be in there. Artists like David Bowie and Sarah McLachlan are among the many promoters of this small but nevertheless intriguing movement. With the Enhanced CD, a web-based or Director-built interface allows you to not only play music, but also watch a video or hook up to the Internet to visit the band website or buy band-related merchandise. Merged with the Internet, the result is a marketing guru’s dream come true: armed with Mommy’s credit card, little Barbie buys products from her favorite band with abandon.

In the purge of projects not directly “Macintosh” that occurred when Steve Jobs returned and ousted CEO Gil Amelio, the AMP was cancelled (or, as we like to term killed Apple projects, “Steved”). In interviews in 1998, Steve went on to poke fun at the very idea, saying, “TV is where you go when you want to turn your mind off”. It’s not surprising that Steve had to go to such lengths to justify himself, for if this last dream of Amelio’s been implemented, the AMP would have established a market in which a DVD-capable device would have been plausible, and Apple might now be on the forefront of this market.

In November 1998, Bahamut (in his alter ego) coined the term “the Golden Convergence,” which has now become his greatest contribution to computer lingo. As Bahamut found, Jobs was on the way to discovering something a lot more provocative than merely Enhanced CDs. To Jobs’s great credit, when the Mac was born he was absolutely on the ball with the first killer app of the computer age, desktop publishing. With Apple in dire straits in the mid 1990s and Jobs out of the picture, however, the second killer app – the Internet – was an opportunity Apple sadly missed. “Golden Convergence,” however, would be a third killer app – a final opportunity for Apple to regain its rightful place in the world of computing. This Golden Convergence would be nothing less than the loss of any distinction between the Web, digital video, and the operating system.

Now, over the next few years, the Web will move from mere HTML to the more extensible and flexible XML, Java will grow in power and become ubiquitous, MPEG-4 will come to incorporate QT, and PDF-flavored documents are expected to proliferate across the Internet. The next-generation Mac operating system, OS X, is ideally suited to respond to this new world by incorporating Java, QuickTime, and PDF on top of a stable and versatile flavor of Unix. The result is that OS X could wind up becoming the one OS in which formats would become transparent. A light version of the Mac OS APIs available within QT itself (a long talked-about possibility) could make the OS even more pervasive, fitting it into smaller appliances and handheld devices.

In addition, with a possible break-up of Microsoft already on the horizon, Apple may have less reason not to compete with Redmond. Thus Cocoa, the modern APIs that are the heart of MacOS X, could be made available again for Wintel as originally intended (back when the APIs were called Yellow Box, and the OS code-named Rhapsody), perhaps on top of a Linux base to compete with Windows. At the time, almost two years back, Bahamut forecasted that Apple would somehow Open Source part of OS X. The result is Darwin, an Open Source initiative that is intended to help Apple conquer Intel (if it so chooses – this is still a matter of some debate) by having the geeks do the dirty work of writing drivers, etc.

In addition, in early 1999, Bahamut foresaw the creation of iMovie, and then followed up by predicting that a main purpose of QuickTime streaming was to enable an Internet website to be created at Apple that would allow individuals to watch their own movies. The creation of iTools is now, of course, history.

All the above isn’t just an attempt to toot Bahamut’s own horn – he can do that all by himself. Instead, this history points out that the Steved One is well aware of Apple’s potential advantage in digital video and has been pursuing a cautious but nevertheless clear strategy in repositioning the Mac to respond to the Golden Convergence.

What next? iMovie is clearly being leveraged by Steve, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Intrinsically linked to the future of OS X, iMovie makes it easy for the average Jolene to make professional-looking transitions between scenes, or professional-looking titles. These transitions, however, are hampered by the speed of rendering them. Quartz (and the Altivec/Velocity Engine chipset) will take care of that, allowing massive increases in the speed of the renderings. With OS X in hand, I expect that Apple will also release a companion to iMovie that will be a hit with Junior, and maybe even Dad: iAnimate, which will allow the end user to create near-Renderman-quality animation on the desktop.

There are some important repercussions that all this might have for the hardware side at Apple. The one kludge in iMovie is having to render the video out to a DV camera and then to VHS. Ughh... all that DV quality is lost. As hints of Apple’s negotiations with C-Cube show, Apple is undertaking a project that would allow rendering straight to DVD or to D-VHS. Home DVD writers are clearly on the horizon and Apple is intending to take full advantage of this. But if there will be Macs that can render DVDs, what else can that chipset do? Well, some of the chipsets can also work as decoders for digital cable boxes. The result would be that you may soon no longer just have an iMac in the den for word processing and such, but also a MacOS X-based control unit for the TV set.

This new box would be nothing less than your cable box, provided to you for a premium from your cable company. The result would be seamless interactivity between traditional and digital cable, and would allow the family to play games, browse the web, play DVDs, and make and edit their home videos. For distribution of home movies, it’ll be possible to either record to VHS and D-VHS, burn to DVD, or send to Apple’s iTools web site. Moreover, as long-time tech sector watcher and Recon For Investors head Robert Morgan has pointed out to Bahamut, a chipset capable of writing digital video to DVD or D-VHS will also be able to write digital video to a hard drive, allowing the unit to act as a digital VCR, much like the current TIVO and ReplayTV devices.

Although this whiz-bang little device is a great idea, one caveat must be inserted. The idea of appealing to Joe Six Pack (and the massive consumer market thus represented) is the force behind the set-top Mac, but it is the same impulse that is driving the dumbing-down of the OS X interface (anybody notice its resemblance to the iMovie interface?), which threatens to alienate the Mac’s traditional audience of professionals and content creators. Apple does intend to go back into the “prosumer” and enterprise market, particularly through DV creation. But that’s a year or two off in the future. One of Jobs’s arguments is that the capabilities of OS 9 took years to evolve. Doubtless there will be desired revisions (based on who screams the most about what) to OS X, but how long will it be before we have a reasonable operating system for enterprise and small-business computing in hand again?

This is a pivotal time, for the possibilities that Golden Convergence makes available to us are great. Only time will tell if Apple will rise to the challenge. If not, we can be sure that others, like TIVO or WebTV, will.

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