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Zmonk’s Game Cage

Mac OS X and the digital hub

By Zmonk, zmonk@macedition.com, April 25, 2001

In the last installment of the Game Cage, I talked about how native game development on the Mac, as opposed to porting of blockbuster PC titles, was dying on the vine. I proposed that Apple’s “Mac as digital hub” paradigm might not be such a pipe dream after all, and promised I’d be back with a few reasons why such a vision of the Mac’s future might become a reality.

Then I drew a blank. Bad news started pouring in. The G4 Cube was flopping, and the cases all had cracks – er, “flow lines.” The new iMacs had flowers and paisley in their cases. Mac OS X still didn’t have the drivers it needed, and couldn’t burn CDs as Apple’s ads implied. The digital hub was beginning to look like little more than marketing fluff; misdirection from the fact that the PC market in general was taking a beating. I could not for the life of me come up with reasons why the digital hub idea was a good thing for Mac gamers. The glimmering half-idea I had vanished, leaving me with nothing but a glimpse of a future which Apple currently makes seem very unlikely.

So where’s the beef, one might ask? How could OS X become a hub which serves as central repository between you and all your varied data?

Let’s define a hub, first of all. I see it as sort of a centralized source – a server, of sorts. Steve Job’s vision seems to be of a world where your Mac at home or in the office is a centralized location for stuff, be it MP3 files, home movies, document files or what have you. "The Simplicity of Macintosh, the Power of UNIX," Apple’s ads for OS X loudly proclaim. How could the power of UNIX be brought to bear on such a digital lifestyle?

How about leveraging virtual desktops? Many versions of UNIX have long had the ability to let users log in at remote terminals and see their desktops and files as if they were on their own computer. Build that functionality into OS X (if it isn’t there already under the hood), and it opens up a world of possibilities. On the road, but you need a file? Your laptop can access your desktop at home, and even run applications. Sure, there are apps like Timbuktu or PC Anywhere that do this now, but if Apple could make it simple and easy to do, like with a single mouse click and password, this would be a winner. Apple excels at making complicated operations transparent to the user; making virtual desktops and remote computing simple enough for your mother to use is within their ability.

The infamous sixth slot in the Mac product grid could also be a digital lifestyle device as well. The Apple Media Player prototypes caused a big stir back in their day. If memory serves, they were based on an LCIII motherboard, but an updated model that could play MP3s, MP3s burned onto CDs, and DVDs. With TiVo functionality such as tie-ins to Apple’s QuickTime TV service, it could be a huge winner for them. Give it a titanium case with blue LEDs on the front, and stand back as they fly off the shelves. Especially if it has FireWire or AirPort built into it so I can pull files from it over the network, or even remotely.

Fantasy, you say? More Kool-Aid? Granted, but it’s not too far-fetched. Business Journal recently took it for a given that Apple needed to get into this space. FireWire is rapidly becoming a standard interface for video recorders, and it’s only a matter of time before your TV, DVD and stereo all talk nice using FireWire connections. A perfect time for an AMP device. Wireless FireWire is just around the corner as well, as are faster versions of the networking protocol AirPort uses. Apple is poised to take advantage of this opportunity, if they can move quickly.

But this is the Game Cage, and we’re supposed to be focused on games. How do they fit into this? Since Apple seems content to let only the blockbuster PC titles get ported to the Mac, and not really foster any strong development efforts, games may continue in this vein. Times for Mac gamers aren’t too bad, but if you’re not moving forward, then you’re standing still. There’s a lot they could be doing, as I’ve mentioned before. Taking a holistic view of the marketplace for games is one tack to take.

Game consoles, as my last column noted, will be central to entertainment in the future. However, there is usually only one or two major players in this space at any given time. Witness what happened to Sega with the Dreamcast, which was no slouch of a console. They failed due to the stiff competition and lack of development. Apple should not, in any way, try to resurrect the Pippin. The only way they should try to compete with Sony and Microsoft in the console space is if they can beat them at every turn. If they are willing to spend the money and time to woo developers onto an Apple-branded console, spend the engineering resources to develop something that is a generation ahead of the competition, and market the heck out of it to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, then they should make a game console. If they’re not willing to do that, they should avoid direct competition in this space at all costs.

That said, there are things Apple could look into. They could, for instance, cut a deal with MS or Sony to bundle PS2s or Xboxes with a Mac. The marketing synergy is there with Xbox and Mac OS X, and while it is a bitter pill to swallow for us old-timers, times do change. Become the Sony of the computer industry through some innovative bundling or technology sharing with the big boys. Heck, get MS to port DirectX to Mac OS X. Pay them licensing fees or something. Anything that brings games to the Mac will help sell more Macs.

Apple should also get involved with whatever looks to be the next powerhouse multiplayer title and get a Mac compatible version going. There are NO megaplayer games for the Mac out there. EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, and the forthcoming Star Wars: Galaxies are all going to be Windows-only titles, and some might even be on the next generation consoles. Apple should be chasing this ball with a vengeance, as these online-only games are the future of gaming. A tie-in with an Xbox or PS2 online title would do an end-run around the Apple Snicker Factor game developers get when you try to get them to make games for our market.

Really pushing OS X into the game development community is a must. This would involve a lot of what I’ve recommended before, but now is as good a time as any to start a focused initiative. Most of the game developers I’ve talked to like the Mac in general, and think Mac OS X is pretty cool. But the market isn’t there yet, and it needs cultivation if it is ever going to be there. The wave of shareware titles for the new OS is encouraging, but game development is expensive and shareware levels of support won’t cut it. Apple needs an activce and prominent office of game development something fierce, where a focused effort can be made to woo game developers onto the new OS. Give them hardware, software and engineering support. Make them your friends, and do what they ask you to do. It will pay off in the long run for Apple, the game developers and the Mac user on the street.

So that wraps up this rant from within the Cage. Next time ’round, we’ll focus on the best shareware games and cool game tools out there for the Mac and Mac OS X. We’ll let the larger game industry percolate for a bit, but keep our beady eyes on them all the same, lest they grow complacent.

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