Taking the digital hub to the next level

Apple could build its own Media Center PC, but should it?

Much of the consumer technology world was abuzz last week as Microsoft unveiled its Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 software, a fancy name for a version of Windows that enables a computer to serve as both PC and digital entertainment center.

Supposedly the Media Center PC represents the long-awaited "convergence" of PC technology with such traditional home entertainment center components as the TV and stereo.

While not introducing new technologies, the Media Center PC's primary selling point is that it combines existing technologies in a more user-friendly -- and thus consumer-friendly -- way.

More than 40 hardware manufacturers, including Dell and Sony, announced last week that they'd be making PCs capable of running the media version of Windows (it will not install on a PC not designed to run it).

When you want to switch from using the PC as a PC to using the PC for some sort of home entertainment, a button on the remote control invokes what is called "10-foot mode." In an instant, the computer screen is transformed to a multimedia menu easily navigable from the comfort of one's couch.

From there you can watch a program previously recorded to the PC's hard drive, edit and print photos, or listen to digital music.

It all sounds perilously similar to Apple Computer's so-called "digital hub" strategy, and yet so far there has been no Mac equivalent to the Media Center PC. Shouldn't Apple be defending its turf?

Perhaps the fertile minds in Cupertino have deemed a Mac version of the Media Center PC too risky. After all, although the Windows version hasn't flopped, neither has it become a mainstream product.

Since the return of CEO Steve Jobs to the helm in 1997, Apple has done an excellent job of choosing very carefully which consumer product categories to embrace and which to avoid.

For example, Apple has declined to re-enter the PDA market (it abandoned the pioneering Newton series back in 1998), with Jobs calling it overly competitive. Similarly, Apple has not heeded suggestions that it build a cell phone or a Mac version of a Tablet PC. In each case, Apple concluded the product category was too risky.

When Apple does move into a new product category, such as the iPod or even the iTunes Music Store, it has done its homework and is confident of success.

Does a Mac Media Center make sense for Apple? Going by the Microsoft model, probably not.

Almost every news article reporting the freshly released revision of Microsoft's Media Center software noted that the high cost of Media PCs – they start at about $1,000 and range up to $3,000 – makes them a tough sell to the mass market.

Then there is the potential conflict within households between the member who wants to use the PC to surf the Web or Instant Message pals and the member who wants to use it to watch a recorded episode of "Fear Factor."

Still another lurking disadvantage to the Media Center PC is that it can suffer from some of the issues common to any Windows computer, particularly if it is frequently used as a regular PC.

"The Achilles heel is that it is a PC and is subject to the problems of a PC with driver or software conflicts that can cause problems with media center applications," said Van L. Baker, a vice president and analyst with the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner G2. "Most people cannot tolerate disruption of their television service due to a software conflict."

Yet Baker sees both Media Center PCs and TiVo-like devices as a "large and growing niche. Specifically, this is a great PC for the digital media enthusiast."

Because a Media Center PC seems to embody its two-year emphasis on the use of the Mac as the digital hub, Apple needs to consider harnessing its renowned design abilities to come up with some sort of media-handling device, though not necessarily a full-fledged Mac with a new name.

Rather than simply imitate the Windows Media Center PC with a Mac version, Apple could develop an entirely new product, intuitive and elegant, that would draw upon the best features of the Media Center as well as digital video recorders like the TiVo.

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