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Weekly Column

Mini Me: The New Mac Mini is All About Movies

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Steve Jobs is so enigmatic. A couple weeks ago at MacWorld, he introduced the 2.9 lb. Mac Mini and the reaction was so great it was like he had re-invented the PC. Readers are all excited by the little box and have been asking me for my take on it. Like everyone else, I had to scratch my head a bit and ponder what this thing is really for. I know, I know, it is for all those PC drivers who bought an iPod and are now supposed to trash their Windows PC for a Mac Mini. Yeah, but what's it REALLY for? Movies.

The Mac Mini is one of Apple's trademark technology repackaging jobs. There ought to be nothing inherently exciting about the little box. It isn't especially powerful. You can buy smaller Windows and Linux machines. You can buy cheaper Windows machines from all the big brands. Yet the Mac Mini has people excited and those other PCs mainly don't. Some of it is industrial design -- it just looks cool. Some of it is commercial psychology: by forgetting the keyboard and mouse Apple not only saved money, it invented a whole new computer configuration between a barebones box and a complete system. Other keyboard-and-mouseless systems will soon appear from other vendors, I promise you, but they'll just be seen as copies.

I'll buy one. I have an old 400 MHz iMac in the kitchen that is begging to be replaced. Lots of Mac users will buy a Mini just to have one, which is why Jobs didn't really have to tell a big story to explain the little box, nor did he (yet) have to follow the aggressive pricing plan I suggested in my 2005 predictions. He'll sell the first half million just on exuberant inertia. But then sales might drop off as they did with the original Mac. THAT's when we'll get the real story on what this thing is for.

Everyone seems to think the Mini is a media PC, and it has the basic characteristics of one. Though the box has no TV tuner, Apple does offer an analog adapter. And you can burn DVDs with it if you get the optional DVD burner. Still, there were hints in that MacWorld presentation of something bigger to come, and the Mac Mini is a big part of that.

Here's my thinking, and it is just thinking -- I have no insider knowledge of Apple's plans, I haven't been diving in any Cupertino dumpsters, and nobody who knows the truth has told me a darned thing. I think the Mac Mini is a fixed component in a system that will extend iTunes to selling and distributing movies.

The first hint came to me a day or so before the MacWorld show when right at midnight my computer stopped playing Apple movie trailers. The only way to watch QuickTime movie trailers (the closest I get to a movie since we have little kids) was suddenly through iTunes 4.7, which takes you straight through the iTunes Music Store. The regular QuickTime player wouldn't work. Apple had made no announcements, nor had they upgraded QuickTime, so I'd say it was a glitch that presaged the eventual replacement of that player for the selling of movies. Since then Apple fixed things and the QuickTime player now works for playing trailers, but I had already seen the future.

Now go back to Steve's MacWorld performance, which you can see on the Apple web site. What the heck is Mr. Ando of Sony doing there? Nominally he's sharing the stage to herald the ability of Apple's new iMovie 5.0 to import high definition video from a new Sony consumer HD camcorder. Apple will also be selling the Sony camcorder online and in its stores. But you don't get the head of Sony at your event just to sell camcorders. And Jobs explained it himself -- it is the "Year of HD" and nearly all of the year is yet to come. As he darkly hinted, we can expect further announcements.

It is simple to say that Apple hopes to repeat with video the success it already has with iPod and iTunes. Jobs denies interest in video, citing the dominance of cable companies, but then he always denies right up until the moment he changes his mind, and that moment is coming.

If Apple hopes to emulate its iPod/iTunes success, what does that mean? It means selling hardware devices and proprietary content to play on those devices. The first such hardware device is probably the Mini. And the proprietary content will be video encoded in AVC H.264, which will be supported first in OS X 10.4, promised for the second quarter of this year. So Apple can't announce that it is in the movie distribution business until 10.4 (code-named Tiger) is available.

Remember Steve said this is the Year of HD. So one could expect that any video sold by Apple would be in high definition format. That gets around the supposed cable monopoly (there is no HD monopoly) and is suitably proprietary that Apple ought to be able to enforce its Digital Rights Management system.

The Mac Mini would look fine on, under, near, or generally around your TV. It has a DVI connector and so do many HDTVs, including those from Sony. Sony in its HDTV manuals says the DVI connector is "not intended" for connecting a computer, but it seems to work. That brings us back to Mr. Ando and my guess about the next Year of HD announcement or two. When OS X 10.4 ships, the Mini will suddenly become Apple's version of a media PC. Like the iPod, it will be a simple device that serves proprietary content, in this case HD video. Just like Gateway, HP, and Dell before it, Apple will start selling in its stores HDTVs, only they'll carry the Sony brand. Do you want to buy a Gateway TV or a Sony TV?

Now about that HD video content, Jobs was careful in his speech to point out more than once that there are two competing standards for High Definition DVDs -- Blu-Ray and HD-DVD -- but that H.264 is a constant on both systems. With movie studios divided between the two standards, this promises to be another VHS versus Betamax competition which means it will take two to three years for one standard to dominate, and in that interim devices will cost more than they ought to and will be coming later to market. Enter Apple and the Mac Mini, supporting every part of HD except a DVD standard, because one isn't needed. The Mini will download its HD video over broadband Internet connections so no optical component is required. The result is that Apple once again gets to market early and has a chance to become the de facto standard, just like iTunes did. Blockbuster can't compete with Apple until there are HD DVDs, and even digital cable doesn't have enough channel capacity to offer as many pay-per-view HD movies as Apple will be able to offer on the first day of service.

The movie studios will play along, too. They already allow on-line distribution through MovieLink and comparable services, so that's not a big obstacle. And Jobs, through his ownership of Pixar, is viewed as a movie industry player -- an insider with as much to lose as any other producer if "Toy Story" is pirated. And of course there is the fact that every movie distributor -- including Sony -- wants to take over Disney's role as Pixar's distribution partner, giving Jobs and Apple even more leverage. I know that Pixar and Apple are separate, but I also know that Steve Jobs will play every card in his deck.

The correlation of HDTV ownership and broadband penetration is very high. People who own HD TVs for the most part don't have HD movies. Movies are the key here, much more than HDTV, which is available for free over air (hence the lack of a tuner in the Mac Mini. Besides, viewers will tolerate non-real-time movie downloads -- as long as they take less time than driving to Blockbuster and back -- but they won't wait for the evening news to download. It simply has to be about movies.

There are a couple outfits already offering what could be the software components of this system. Their names are almost identical -- iFlicks and iFlix -- and both seem to be in flux. It could be that iFlix is freaked by the movie studio crackdown on bitTorrent servers, but suddenly their downloads don't download anymore while iFlicks has plain withdrawn its product from the market, leaving only mysterious messages on its web site. Both products manage well the organization and playing of videos on your Mac or PC. Either product could be the core of a new Apple movie service. I'm guessing that one or both have been -- or are about to be -- purchased by Apple.

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