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A flat-panel iMac is not thinking different enough

by Eliot Hochberg, January 5, 2002

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Okay, so the rumors of a flat-panel iMac coming out at MacWorld San Francisco are rampant. Will there be an LCD-based iMac? Probably. Eventually. But so what? The editorials found on many sites sound as if an iMac flat panel would be something of a Second Coming, the product that will shoot Apple far ahead of its competition. I disagree.

First off, other companies have beaten Apple to the punch. Gateway has had an all-in-one flat panel for quite some time. Granted, it isn’t as sexy as an Apple product usually is, but it’s been around and people have bought them. The people I’ve met who have them were pleased with the space savings, and some folks who’ve seen them were confused at first: where is the computer? But nonetheless, this ground has been covered. And where is the uproar about this breakthrough? Nowhere, because it’s not Apple. That says a great deal about Apple’s marketing, but that still doesn’t make an iMac with a flat screen an automatic show stopper. IBM also has an all-in-one flat-panel model; heck, even Dell had something that was pretty darn close. A company called Integra makes a unit that looks frighteningly like an iMac, but uses a flat panel instead and the extra space allows it to have PCI slots!

Perhaps I’m missing the point. Perhaps the fact that the product is made by Apple is enough. But if Apple intends to make further inroads into the world dominated by Wintel boxes, I believe they will have to do more than make an “all-in-one flat panel computer.” Apple needs a system that will really floor consumers and the competition.

So what would do that? Well, we know that Apple is locked in with OS X. This is fine, I suppose, although I admit to being jaded regarding anything named an “operating system.” Today’s OSes are all too prone to problems as soon as you add anything from a third party. But my grumblings aside, Apple is aiming for this digital hub idea. So you know what I’d like to see? The ultimate central unit for a college dorm home theatre system. Not some half-assed attempt to use a couple of third-party products that might work, but a real set-up that would put both PCs and home audio equipment to shame.

Here’s what I envision:

First, you obviously have the LCD. Fine. Make sure it can show some form of digital television. Ideally it would support 1080p, although other wide screen HDTV-compatible formats should work, too. And make sure that watching TV works. No full-screen glitches, no crashing because other programs are running. The whole thing should just work and work well. Now, include with the system a FireWire-based AV router. Get people used to the idea that audio and video can be sent through FireWire. Right now, the general consumer thinks that the most that FireWire can do is transfer video. But with a little breakout box that has inputs for a bunch of components on it, the idea will start to come through. Face it, even if you can watch DVDs and play music on the iMac, people will still have MD players, video game consoles, laser disc players, CD jukeboxes, whatever.

Next, there should be software on the system that emulates an AV receiver. Select your source, choose your surround mode, etc. While we’re at it, that breakout box should have outputs for a standard 5.1 speaker setup. That way, people could use the speakers they already have, or buy whatever they like.

This kind of system should also have a wireless remote. Bluetooth or AirPort/WiFi would be slick, but IR is sufficient. Make it so that it works just like a home stereo system, and that it just works. That’s key.

Now, do little cool things like integrate e-mail in with watching TV. A little bouncing icon comes up, and with the push of a button on your remote, you can read e-mail. Slick it up further and have the Mac work as a TiVo-like PVR (personal video recorder) to pause the show you’re watching at the time. Add that feature to a built in AM/FM/XM radio which works with iTunes, while you’re at it.

There should be an optional cordless phone accessory, with answering machine software that can also integrate with the TV viewing mode. And of course you should be able to monitor TV while you are surfing, working, studying, etc. There should also be a complement of buttons on the front of the system whose functions change depending on which app you’re using. By the way, these wouldn’t necessarily be “i” apps. They’d more likely be “AV” apps, or something else.

Obviously, this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. But if Apple were to come up with even half of these ideas in a product, and if they actually worked well, then finally Apple would outshine PCs in a way that Joe Consumer couldn’t help but notice. Here’s to hoping that Apple will indeed out-think its competitors, its customers and its pundits and come up with something more than we could possibly expect.

Eliot Hochberg is a Web developer with over 6 years experience. In addition to musing about education sales, he is the author of MacEdition’s ongoing feature on DVD authoring.

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