January 29, 2006
iTunes as video jukebox
Using iTunes to catalog video is working out pretty well; I'm beginning to build a video jukebox to go with the thousands of songs in the musical jukebox accessible through iTunes.
Network streaming is very good across a wired 100-megabit network, acceptable over 802.11g, and pretty pathetic over 802.11b. I've imported a bunch of old Apple commercials, various movie videos, and have started importing shows somebody in the family wants to keep after watching the EyeTV capture files. The iTunes interface is pretty good at navigating a lot of content quickly, and provides preview frames for videos to help distinguish similar movies.
There are a few rough edges, however, and I wonder if the day isn't coming when there are two paths into the iTunes Music Store, iTunes and “iVideo.”
Why? Inclusion of both video and audio content is feeling forced. I went to listen to my “recent additions” playlist off the G5, and iTunes keeps showing me (recently added) videos. I could rewrite my smart playlist to not include videos (and probably will), but there should be a simple way to choose one kind of content or the other, even (nay, especially) over the network. Right now I just want to listen to new songs, but to do that, I have to uncheck literally five-sixths of my “recent additions” playlist.
Playing videos back in iTunes is a decidedly inferior experience to, say, DVD Player. Besides the jumpy playback, there's also no clear way to fast forward or rewind. There is a hidden feature -- if you click on the tiny preview panel in iTunes, a full resizable window opens. That's an improvement.
Still better, Improved Movie Viewing in iTunes gives an AppleScript that will fire up local movies in QuickTime, giving a smoother full-screen experience with QuickTime Player's on-screen controls. Still, it's easy to imagine a better experience with a purpose-built video management and player program.
Apple ballyhooed the addition of parental controls for a variety of applications in Tiger and in iTunes starting with version 5, but it's really a pretty weak setup, with many of the weaknesses made clearer with the addition of TV shows to the content stream.
Problem 1: Only iTunes-purchased songs can be marked as “Explicit.” Believe it or not, I have some songs I would just as soon not share with my children, but I can't find a way to set the “Explicit” tag so they'll be locked out. Apple documents the “Explicit” tag for podcasters, but I don't see any way to set it on content that isn't coming from the Music Store.
Problem 2: Video content appears to be completely unrated. Leafing through the selection of TV shows available, there's not a single episode of “Desperate Housewives” that rates a parental advisory label, even though tonight's episode is rated TV-PG.
Once again, I have no way of setting local content so that my children can't see it. I created a streamable copy of “Office Space” on my G5 as an experiment; now it's visible on the network.
What I hope Apple will do: Update from the binary “explicit/okay” system to one that reflects the V-chip ratings or the MPAA ratings, on songs and videos. There are tracks and movies that I think are okay for my 10-year-old that aren't okay for my 4-year-old. Give users access to the rating system, so that users who have parental controls can't access content at MY option, not just Apple's.
February 14, 2005
Hot Mac mini love, now online
The response to the Mac mini has been even more insane than I thought it could be. I've had mine a little over a week now, and I almost feel like there's nothing more to be said about this awesome little box. Of course, I've never let that stop me before, so here goes...
There were a few people who didn't believe me when I said I was going to buy a mini with my spare change, so the evidence is at right: $586 in rolled change, that's been laying in an undisclosed location for at least a year, gradually building up. I weighed it, and it's 46 lbs. of change, converted into just under 3 lbs. of Mac-y goodness.
As of tonight, the mini is my new internet-facing server. It's taken over for a 450 mhz K6-2 Linux box that's 17 x 15 x 9 with a 230-watt power supply (I have no idea what it actually draws, but newer boxes have much beefier power supplies than even that). For comparison, the mini is 6.5" x 6.5" x 2", and has an 85-watt external power supply, so in no circumstances will it draw as much power or generate as much heat as the box it's replacing. It will also stay up longer when pulling power off a UPS.
I bought a second mini for work; we've been looking for a project box we could quickly set up and tear down, and the mini looks like just the thing. The work machine is a 1.42/80/256, where my home mini is 1.25/40/512. They might also replace small-form-factor PCs in some of our field installs; we've piloted using a Cappuccino PC, but they're slightly larger and significantly more expensive than the mini. I just configured a Cappuccino EZ3 with Pentium III, 1 gHz, with Bluetooth, only 256 megs of memory, a 40 gig hard drive, and a combo drive, and it priced at $814. My mini with all that and twice the memory was $624. Their Mocha system offers a Pentium IV at 2 gigahertz and 512 megs of RAM for $1,035.
Some early buyers are reporting video issues when using VGA connectors, but I can't really see them on mine. I'm generally working the mini through my G5 and VNC, but it's also (for now, at least) running a 17" Sony CRT, and I've been able to get the CRT looking very good -- the whites are noticeably whiter than my LCD.
Software setup has been a breeze. The primary duties of that Linux box were to filter outbound web requests by the kids, serve images and redirects from my old weblog, pre-TypePad, serve some ads from Amazon, and manage my dynamic DNS address at DynDNS. None of what I'm doing here is unique to the Mac mini in any way. All of this will run on any Mac that will run OS X.
The Linux box was running DansGuardian and Squid to filter the kids' web requests. Instead of a pure POSIX install, I found the OS X-targeted distribution at Dave Lopata's website. It includes Squid, DansGuardian, and an AppleScript-driven management interface. The POSIX bits run as daemons, but you can do basic configuration and monitoring through the interface. And the Lopatas live just up the road in Buford, to boot.
I found a similar solution for DynDNS: DNSUpdate. It installs as a background daemon, but you can add users and hosts through a Cocoa front end.
And that's also how the latest version of OSXvnc (1.5) works. I fired it up, had it install the daemon, and rebooted. Later, I fired it up again, and it wagged its finger at me: "OSXvnc can't listen on the specified port. Probably because the OSXvnc server is already running as a startup item." I've connected through several different clients without a hitch.
MovableType installed almost without a hitch. I took the opportunity to install MT 3.15, where the old box had 2.63, because I never figured out how to delete unwanted pingbacks in 2.63, and 3.15 has a control for that. I used the directions at Lawver.net. I transferred all those redirects and images using Panic's Transmit. I still don't have outbound e-mail working -- I tried Adriaan's suggestions for enabling Postfix under Panther, but Earthlink blocks outbound requests on port 25. Their status message suggests they may open relays on a case-by-case basis, but I guess I'll wait another day or two for that.
On the Unix/BSD side, I've decided to use DarwinPorts to manage downloading and installing applications. So far, I've fully installed Webalizer, and downloaded Apache 2.0.52. I'm still pondering if I want to migrate to Apache 2; I did almost 2 years ago on the Linux box, but on the Mac, I don't want to give up the integration with user accounts, Rendezvous, and so on that Apple has baked in, so I'm going to tiptoe through that upgrade.
February 06, 2005
EyeTV Wonder USB 2 delayed
It's basically a rebranded ATI TV Wonder USB 2.0 with Elgato software, and was introduced at Macworld in January with an expected ship date of the end of January.
I ordered one the night I ordered my Mac mini, and e-mailed last week when I didn't see an update or product, and got an e-mail back reporting that the product has been delayed a couple of weeks, with shipping now expected on February 18. The e-mail cites shipping delays and coordination with system 10.3.8 as contributing to the delay.
I'm very curious to see if a standard ATI TV Wonder USB 2 will work with the revised Elgato software. You can find the ATI for $99, and the current Elgato software understands all of Elgato's devices. It seems like that would be the same with the Wonder. And I can't imagine that ATI is going to manufacture a whole run of these puppies with firmware changes so that Elgato has a version whose hardware can be distinguished from the PC version.
By the way, the mini is here; lots more soon.
January 11, 2005
Dawn of a new Apple
So Steve Jobs has finished the big keynote at Macworld '05, and the Apple website has been updated with the new products he announced. If you haven't been following along, feel free to go take a look.
Wow. This is the beginning of a whole new era for Apple. No longer do I have to grit my teeth and say, "Well, you could buy a white-box PC," when somebody says they only want to spend $500 on their new computer.
This is beginning to smell like a no-excuses Apple. We only have five percent of the market? What the hell are we going to do about it? Asked and answered. We're dominating the hard drive music player market, but people are still buying smaller and cheaper flash players? What the hell are we going to do about it? Asked and answered.
It's great to see Apple leveraging their superior product design skills to bring out some low-end products. As of today, you can actually take home a useful piece of Apple hardware for $99. The iPod shuffle looks like exactly what I was talking about in December, the iPod cheapy tiny sport. My only problem is that it doesn't have FireWire support, so it would/will be very slow with Sophie's TiBook (which is still USB 1.1, of course).
As for the Mac mini, that's every bit as nice as the G4 iMac I'm writing this on, for $599. The $499 model will probably do very nicely as the replacement for my home web server, and somebody on my tech team pointed out almost immediately that the new mini is essentially the same size as the mini PC we're planning to deploy to field locations where space is tight.
I expect both of these new products to sell like crazy.
November 29, 2004
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.
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.
January 14, 2004
iServe pieces continue to fall into placeBetween Macworld, CES, and the efforts of the open-source community, we continue to move closer to the day when we'll all have an iServe in every pot.
- New or recent releases that help:
- Ovolab's Phlink is an answering machine for your Mac with full programmability -- you can get an e-mail with the message anytime someone leaves you a message, or give everyone in your house their own PIN code, with calls being routed by PIN code.
- Perceptive Automation's Indigo interfaces with X10 home automation equipment.
- There's a detailed writeup on using a Linux box as an iTunes server, complete with Rendezvous support.
- There's also TunesAtWork, a Java streaming server you can run on a machine at home that provides a web interface to your iTunes library.
- Finally, on the client side, ElGato has introduced their new EyeHome, which brings your computer's music, photos, movies, and internet bookmarks into the living room, showing them on your TV, and playing them through your stereo.
I notice that this week, I can walk into CompUSA and plop down $99.99 and walk out with a 200-gigabyte drive (after a $70 mail-in rebate). Imagine the price a big manufacturer like Apple would get.
December 02, 2003
Nearest thing to an iServe reviewed
The Magnia from Toshiba is the nearest thing to an iServe I've seen on the market today. It serves as the guts for New Millennium's FileMaker Server System.
Also, Mirra is shipping their PC-only personal server priced at $399 and $499.
September 21, 2003
Ispiri-serve: Bringing file servers home
PCWorld previews the Mirra personal server from Ispiri, a cheap ($399) 120-gig file server running Linux aimed at home and small-office users.
Looks like they're another company that sees a few pieces of the puzzle that I envision as an iServe.
They get the small size and headless operation, the importance of being able to access the server securely from anywhere on the net, and the need for seamless integration (they ship client software that automagically syncs your user directories to the server).
What they don't get: the need for the box to be inclusive (they back up both kinds of computer: Windows 2000 OR Windows XP), the value in running web applications like e-mail and a web-server on your home server, and the need for backups that can be moved off-site.
And that's not to mention tying in to home entertainment, the phone, TV, and Apple's .Mac service.
September 11, 2003
Meet the iServe
Here‘s what would make my Tuesday perfect. I would like for Steve Jobs to take the stage at Apple Expo Paris, and take some time to discuss the new “Panther” release of OS X Server. “It has a built-in VPN server, improved SMB networking to better support Windows users, improvements from FreeBSD 4.8 and 5, QuickTime Streaming Server 5, better setup, management and monitoring tools,” Steve would say. “With our OpenDirectory 2 handling directory and authentication, it‘s the state-of-the art for simple, robust, scalable file serving.”
“But,” he continues, ”We think there are thousands more people out there who really need powerful file, printer and application services, and we started to think about either lowering the price or sweetening the deal for our customers. Then it hit us: What if with every $499 copy of our 10-user OS X Server, we threw in a server?”
Curtain rises, crowd gasps ... There, on a table, are a couple of small, sexy boxes, about the size of the ill-fated G4 Cube, but with the latest Apple styling. “Introducing the iServe,” Steve would say.
It‘s been a little more than 10 months since I first started thinking about, and discussing, the iServe. Other people have put forth their vision, notably SpamDude, and Santiago has even envisioned an iServe ad.
The general idea of the iServe is a home file and application server that could really become the digital hub of a household. It would start out by bringing e-mail, calendaring, and contact-sharing that are common in the business world to the home, small-business, and education market, but ideally, would move beyond that to take an active role in managing the technology of your home, including your telephone, television, and even HVAC and alarm system.
If this doesn‘t interest you at all, you can stop reading now, because I‘m going to go on at length about what would make me an early adopter, and how I would like to see an iServe designed and marketed.
Apple could launch an iServe as an OS X-only product, but as with the iTunes Music Store, it will be more successful if it supports more platforms, including Windows, OS 9, and Linux, as clients. As much as possible, the iServe should leverage open standards like vCal and LDAP, so that Apple doesn‘t have to create PC software that interoperates only with the iServe, and so that users can choose client software that fits their needs.
- Target markets for the iServe are:
- Home users with multiple computers and broadband connections
- Small workgroups: especially project teams
- Included software:
- OS X Server 10-user
- Weblog software
- iCal server software
- Mail server
Don‘t neglect the importance of small workgroups in marketing the iServe. Apple‘s LaserWriter sold into big companies so that creative teams could output high-resolution documents. Today‘s office is more often organized around ad hoc project teams, put together for specific projects. The iServe is just the right size for a typical project team of 3-10 people, and could keep their project-related calendar, data, and web site on one computer that‘s in their control.
If your whole company is only a dozen people, then the iServe would work for you, too. Won‘t that siphon off Xserve sales? I don‘t think so. The Xserve is clearly a product for the data center, and most workgroups don‘t have access to a data center. The iServe would generally ship with the 10-user version of OS X Server, with customers paying for the upgrade to Unlimited.
The thing that differentiates the iServe, as with all good Apple products, is the software, so let’s look at it first.
File and print services: It goes without saying that this product needs to be able to serve files and printers. You could make an argument for it to be the first Mac with a parallel port, to support the widest possible range of printers.
Web serving. This is, of course, a standard feature of OS X, which includes Apache out of the box. The iServe would also include software to serve a weblog and photo gallery, webalizer, and MRTG.
Other Apple products that would tie in with the iServe:
.Mac and Backup: .Mac is a product in search of an identity. It started out as a vanity e-mail address, but most people seem to use it today as a simple backup mechanism, and a place to get the occasional free program.
The iServe could go a long way toward providing real, indisputable value through .Mac. Apple should expand .Mac to include dynamic DNS service (like DynDNS and No-IP), and every iServe should ship with a 1-year membership, and a free domain registration. It should be Apple-easy to configure the server to serve web pages through a consumer-grade router, and to set up VPN tunnels between the iServe and machines on the public internet, as when you carry your PowerBook to work, to Starbucks, or on a trip. Don’t make users unnecessarily open their iServe up to attack to use them from outside the firewall. All software configuration should be through the web, although it would be okay to provide OS X tools that make it easier, so long as the box can be administered from any machine on its network.
From inside the firewall, the iServe is an extension of .Mac: users can back up their files to the server, and if they’re using OS X, it can happen automatically through Backup. The server administrator can then set particular directories, or classes of directory, to back up to .Mac, for additional peace of mind. In iSync, next to the .Mac icon, would be an icon for your iServe, and each user could choose to sync their data to one, both, or neither.
If you build a website that’s too popular to support from the iServe on your DSL or cable modem, the iServe includes software to transparently migrate to .Mac managed hosting, available starting at a few dollars a month (and hosted on Xserves for the insanely brand-loyal).
There are two issues with e-mail support on the iServe, both relating to spam. Since most ISPs don’t allow SMTP servers on their networks, the simplest and most open solution -- to have the iServe as the SMTP server for whatever domain it’s associated with -- probably won’t work. I suppose the best we can hope for is to set up the iServe to receive mail with your domain name and to use your ISP’s outbound server as the default outbound server. The second issue is e-mail filtering, and there’s another value-add for .Mac. If you’re a subscriber, Apple will distribute new filters whenever another yahoo updates the Sobig virus.
iCal/Address Book: When a user attached to an iServe creates a calendar or a contact, there should be an option to publish that item to the iServe, where other users could subscribe. On my home iServe, Christy could create a “Midvale PTA” calendar that I could see in iCal, and that other people could see through the web (or iCal if they‘ve got it). The iCal server software should also be smart enough to periodically update a calendar that lives on a PowerBook when it‘s logged in, and note on the published calendar when it was last updated.
This also means that Christy and I could update each other’s contact information, so I get new phone numbers from her family, and she gets new ones from mine. By default, these things are for inside-the-firewall only, but the system administrator can easily share groups of contacts or calendars across the net, as with PTA calendars and contacts, soccer schedules, etc.
And please, please, please, include iPhoto in this scheme, so that the iServe could automagically build a master archive of all the digital pictures on all our computers, or at least in all our copies of iPhoto.
iTunes/iTunes Music Store: I should be able to listen to music shared by other users on an iServe, and to share my music with them.
So much for the steak, what about the sizzle?
Television: Rumor is that Steve Jobs doesn’t like television, but he would be a strange techie indeed if he doesn’t like TiVo. One iServe option would grab video as scheduled by server users, then use QuickTime Streaming Server to stream the captured video over the network. This could be a big seller in education, as teachers could build and share collections of educational programs.
Telephone: The iServe would include a modem with voice capabilities, and software to manage your calls. When someone calls your number, they might have to enter a PIN to leave a message, or might enter a code to choose the recipient of the message. The iServe would then generate an e-mail or SMS message (or even phone you!) notifying the recipient of the new message, which they could retrieve through secure login over the internet. Small businesses could use the iServe to handle their voicemail needs.
On the low end, selling for family use, there’s very little here that would require as much horsepower as the current low-end (800 megahertz G3) iBook, but for reasons of economy, it might make sense to build the base iServe on that platform, without battery, LCD, or keyboard. Swap the 4200-rpm 2.5” drive for a cheaper and faster, full-size 3.5” drive, and switch out the Radeon 7500 video card for the cheapest thing that will work -- iServes aren’t meant to run with a display attached. I think Apple could hit the $499 price point here. You’re looking at an iBook motherboard with a cheaper video card, a 60-gig drive, 256 megs of memory, a CD-ROM and a plastic case. The only upgrade would be to gigabit Ethernet. Certainly there’s nothing there that should cost more than a low-end Dell or Gateway desktop.
Of course, Apple would rather you spent more, so there are a lot of add-on goodies. Almost everyone would spend $99 more to get AirPort Extreme, especially folks who were early AirPort adopters, but now have Extreme machines still using their graphite base stations. Most people would upgrade the hard drive and memory as well, and those are profitable upgrades for Apple. And of course you could upgrade to the unlimited OS X Server for less than the $500 difference in the retail packages.
Certainly, you could back up the whole server across the internet, but there are a number of optional backup drives available, including DVD-R and tape. If you really back your machine up, the tape is absolutely necessary. I recently backed up my PowerBook for the first time (since February), and it took 5 DVD-Rs and several hours.
If you want to one-up the neighbors, you’ll want the G4 iServe, starting at $999 (and yes, it comes with OS X Server Unlimited, so again, the hardware and software are the same price as the retail software). Equivalent to the 1 gHz eMac, with lower-end video, no display, AirPort Extreme included, 512 megabytes of memory and a 120-gigabyte drive.
From Mac OS Rumors (which doesn’t support permalinks, but posted 9/10/03):
Details are still sparse and unreliable, but one major feature that sources have been discussing is integration with Safari, and Apple's Web site. Apparently, a feature is being developed to allow users of "iOffice" to upload their work to a central sharing site, where others can use the documents as templates for their own projects. This could make the jobs of a great many desk-bound workers much easier, and although the legal details are still being worked out, apparently the system is already being used internally by some Apple employees.
Update: Another column about an iServe was here at AppleLust, where Pierre Igot uses the term to describe a more entertainment-centric box, that resembles an Apple version of the Media Center PCs many clone manufacturers are shipping.
Toshiba’s iServe-like platform: Toshiba says it “provides a platform for solution developers to reach a variety of vertical markets via software bundling and add-on optional devices that increase productivity.”
It’s the basis for New Millennium’s turnkey FileMaker Server product:
Ikon actually sells a unit they call the iServe.
September 09, 2003
Intel's pocket server project
Intel has done research into a personal server, a tiny Linux box with a web server and wireless connection, that is intended to give users access to their data from anywhere. It’s an interesting approach, but it overlooks one hard-and-fast consumer law: People don’t want to carry more stuff around.
Would I use such a device if it was built into my phone or my iPod, the two gadgets that are most likely to be by my side? Absolutely. But the best solution of all is not to put my critical data on a portable device that’s subject to theft, loss, dead batteries, and corporate IT policies (do you want users bringing in gigs and gigs of who knows what on a device that expects full peering privileges on your network?).
No, the right answer is to accept and accelerate the necessity of always-on broadband. My personal server is accessible from anywhere in the world, and is totally invisible, weightless, and massless as I wander the planet. It doesn’t slow me down explaining it to the airport security staff, and I don’t have to make sure I’ve plugged it in before going to sleep, lest I be unable to get any work done the next day.
My personal server lives in my house, where it occupies a quiet corner of my office, sucking whatever power it needs from a wall socket, and whatever bandwidth it needs from the DSL connection, and letting me log in securely from all over the world. What’s better is that it’s not just my personal server; my family can use it, and you’re reading my inane (insane?) chatterings off it right now.
This is part of the promise of the product I imagine when I discuss the iServe (about which more later this week). The Intel project is smart to realize that a computer that doesn’t have to support a display has a lot of advantages in this sort of project, but it’s dumb if it believes that any product based on this technology would better serve customers needs than a 40-gig iPod.