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November 29, 2004

Hello, iServe?

Apple to rule family room with entertainment server? | MacMinute News

The market for a small appliance server that could handle multimedia feels a lot like the MP3 player market pre-iPod these days.

Merrill Lynch analysts have finally caught on to what some of us have been saying for literally years: "A 200GB Apple server at a reasonable price and possibly with PVR technology could be Apple's next category killer," the firm said.

There are more and more other players getting into the space: the latest is Axentra, who offer a HomeSeries NetBox starting at exactly the $499 price point I've suggested.

Their server is clean and white, gleaming like an iBook, although the back is still PC-ugly. Reviews have been mixed, noting especially a quite noisy fan: one reviewer notes "This is not a trivial problem. You likely would not want to place the Net-Box in a room where you were going to work all the time, and certainly not near sleeping areas."

As in 2001, there are enough competitors out there (Windows Media Center PCs, Axentra, the Linksys NSLU2), at all different price points, to validate the market. If somebody just combined an elegant, near-silent piece of hardware with an optimized server OS and streaming software, they would be poised for an iPod-like market dominator.

One of the reviewers quoted above says "there's probably not a lot of home and SOHO users, the target market, buying into Axentra's idea of server-based computing, even though there is something to be said for it. The concept is just a little too sophisticated." Talk about not getting it.

These computer things are supposed to do sophisticated things. How many people do you know that own domains? How many with family or small business e-mail addresses? How many with hobby, charity, or business-card web pages? How 'bout digital cameras, or DV camcorders? How many people own Tivos? How many have home networks and broadband? All these people are doing the sort of "sophisticated" things the Axentra, or an iServe, should make simple.

On the other hand, the Windows Media Center PCs are still, first and foremost, PCs. They don't make much of an effort to become an appliance, or to integrate with all the other PCs or Macs you probably have in your house already. Being PCs, they have to provide all the features people expect in PCs: floppy drives, optical drives, card slots and hard drive bays. All of these drive up prices and complexity.

The Linksys has the advantage of being pretty inexpensive, but it seems a little underpowered for media streaming, and all of the interesting stuff is being done outside of Linksys.

The Axentra is very much what I have in mind. If Apple doesn't launch a similar product by the time my clunky old K6-450 Linux box gives up the ghost, this looks like a great alternative.

November 29, 2004 in Apple, General computing, iServe and home servers | Permalink

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Comments

Hey man, good to know you haven't given up on the iServe concept. I had inklings of the idea a long time ago, but only realized it after switching to Macs and finding your columns. Over the last few years everything has fallen into place for it, except the product itself. There seemed to be some interest around the web after your posts, but then it died down.

FWIW, this is very possible right now, for the creative and resourceful. Here is the strategy that I implemented: limit the hardware to laptops or a cube, for good looks and silent operation. Buy used, to keep the price down. Make sure it is airport-ready and has USB and Firewire ports. Then use the software and expandability to implement everything:
-serve a webpage with Apache
-broadcast an airport network for other computers
-use OS X's built-in software firewall
-provide storage space with a firewire drive
-backup data from other computers (eg with rsync)
-allow remote login/ssh tunneling from remote machines, which in turn allows:
--using your smtp server from anywhere
--remote administration with VNC
finally, multimedia capabilities that the Axentra box lacks:
-pump music to a stereo via iTunes
-watch DVDs with a video-out port
-have TiVo functionality with an EyeTV

If you're careful you can do all of this (and more) for around $700-$800. Of course, Apple could put a box together more elegantly and efficiently; I really wish they would. Their ace in the hole with this is Applescript, which could make for unified control of everything. Here's hoping someone in Cupertino has been reading your blog - Apple would do it right, and if their timing was right they would own the market. However, that market may be 6-18 months away; remember that the iPod was two years late (I'd say quite fashionably late) coming to the mp3 party.

Posted by: silas at Dec 14, 2004 4:38:55 PM