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Switched On: Apple's DVR dilemma


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Both Microsoft's Windows Media Center and Apple's Front Row provide a "ten-foot" interface for music, DVDs and photos. But, when used with a compatible video card, Media Center includes the ability to record television shows. In fact, small USB ATSC tuners now available or coming soon from the likes of Pinnacle are recognized by Windows Media Center.

Apple has eschewed such a feature, probably for a variety of technological and business reasons. Modern Macs don't include TV tuners and adding them would increase cost. Setting up DVRs to work with set-top boxes via infrared blasters can be cumbersome and unreliable. Much of the complexity of Windows Media Center remotes that Apple has chided is due to their more comprehensive control and recording of television. And CableCARD – the ailing standard in which Microsoft and TiVo (to name a couple) have placed great faith for simplifying tuning by bypassing the cable set-top box -- is far from a universal solution. Meanwhile, the increased distribution of subsidized and well-integrated (if sometimes impaired) DVRs from cable and satellite providers makes the market a challenging one.

Apple's omission of DVR functionality has also been relatively easy to understand or justify until now because of the iTunes store. Apple's novel channel for selling video has facilitated bringing television shows to PCs and iPods, emerging platforms for video. Despite Windows Media Center and other PC-based DVR products including Windows pioneer Beyond TV from Snapstream, Linux favorite MythTV, and consumer electronics crossover ReplayTV, DVRs remain overwhelmingly in the living room. And so it has stood -- iTunes-purchased shows local on the PC and recorded shows local to the TV.

For Apple, though, that wall will melt like the transition effect in a sitcom flashback next year when the company releases the product known for now as iTV. The digital media adapter, which resembles a slice of Mac mini, will bring a Front Row-like interface to televisions.

iTV follows a long line of mostly unsuccessful products seeking to bridge the PC and television worlds over a home network; the few that have even attempted video typically do so with disappointing results. These products have hailed from an impressive variety of PC, networking and consumer electronics brands including Netgear (with its just-released VIIV-certified Digital Entertainer), Sony, D-Link, HP, SMC, Pinnacle, Dell, Acoustic Research (a Thomson accessories brand), Dell and Linksys (via Microsoft's Media Center Extender initiative), and now-defunct early entrant Prismiq. iTV has been hailed as a breakthrough for consumer video flexibility, but it could turn out to be a loss for consumers if Apple uses it as a rationalization to avoid enabling DVD burning of movies purchased at the iTunes store.

Among the choices in iTV's prototype menus is one for TV shows, but perhaps only the ones that have been purchased or are available via the iTunes store. How odd it would be to have a menu item called "TV shows" on one's TV that does not provide access to the TV programming at hand. The paradox recalls when cellular companies hailed the arrival of "wireless music" -- available for decades via the humble transistor radio.

Given the iTV's price, its implicit video quality standards, and Apple's reticence regarding what flavor of 802.11 it will use, many signs point to Apple using a daft of the 802.11n standard. 802.11n could provide the bandwidth to send video back through the network to the Mac for encoding (or perhaps the iTV might have enough horsepower to do the encoding itself, saving network bandwidth), but Apple would still have to deal with annoying infrared blasters to enable channel switching for standard-definition digital cable or satellite systems. Furthermore, it faces the thorny business question of where it draws the line between being an enabling technology provider and a vendor of competitive content.

As it often does, especially with new products, Apple may opt to attempt less and execute well. Yet, treating iTV, which will vie for one of the precious few HDMI ports, as a television product disconnected from programming would repeat the mistakes of other PC digital bridges, increasing the complexity of the TV experience rather than simplifying it.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at

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