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January 08, 2003

Another Macworld without an iServe

Oh, well. The iServe wasn't one of Steve's "just one more" things. That's a shame, because a product like it is going to come around, and change the computing landscape forever.

There were a few nudges in the right direction this week:

AirPort Extreme is much better suited to wirelessly streaming video around the house than regular AirPort, with its 11 megabits per second theoretical maximum.

Tivo announced it will offer a premium service package that lets you view your photos or listen to your music collection hosted on your Mac through your Tivo.

El Gato Software revised their EyeTV external TV tuner for the Mac, and hinted at a next-generation model that might use a FireWire interface, feature wireless capabilities, or include multiple tuners. What if the iServe took your television order through a listings web page, then (automagically) burned the show to VideoCD for playback on the bus, at lunch, or whenever you had a break? CDs would replace videotape in short order.

January 8, 2003 in Apple - General | Permalink


I'd have to go back and look at the spec we drafted for this beast, but I wonder how much of it could be built from what's available now. People have built wireless access point/print/file servers without the Apple logo before now. What else are we talking about? Speakers and a whacking great MP3 collection?

We don't have to wait for Steve to get interested: he's building stuff I can't make for myself and that's fine.

Posted by: paul at Jan 10, 2003 12:55:20 AM

You forgot the requirement for TiVo-like "functionality." Given your TV viewing habits, I can see why you may have overlooked that. An iServe would thus need video in & out, along with software that lets you schedule the TV recording, including an up-to-date program guide.

Analog and digital audio ins & outs are required, too, so that you can rip MP3s from your home stereo and play them back on the same.

I think I've got that right.

Posted by: john at Jan 10, 2003 9:53:45 AM

I agree that a lot of this is already out there, including:

  • VOCP - Voicemail, phone system integration (Perl-based)

  • MisterHouse - X10 and other home automation (Perl-based)

  • VCR How-To - Turn your Linux box into a VCR with Video CD capabilities

  • Samba - to support Windows boxes

  • Netatalk - to support Mac clients

That leaves a streaming server that could serve your TV library to clients, and a whole lot of software, to present TV listings, to take the disparate web interfaces of the open source tools and unify them, and to make the whole thing as fiddle-free as possible, so an average consumer could install, configure, and maintain the whole thing.

That ignores the network back-end that I expected Apple to provide (a potential profit center), and the hardware design, most of which is available on the commodity market.

And, of course, whether to use Linux or BSD.

Posted by: Frank at Jan 10, 2003 10:32:35 PM

Well, samba and Netatalk are a gimme, no matter what you run this beast on. I noted this some months back, but perhaps it bears repeating: for heterogenous peer-to-peer file sharing, samba is the best of all between afp, samba, and nfs. It just worked better from the client side (what else matters?).

I think you'd want to go with FreeBSD since there's so much overlap between it and Darwin.

There are TV cards supported by FreeBSD (and Linux as well, I'm sure) so that's covered. Scheduling recording and such is another matter, and I'm guessing that bumps disk requirements up a tad.

As far as backups go, what's wrong with CD-R or DVD-R? It's not like it's hard to do that, and with RW media, you could simply run thru the usual dump routine -- from the dump(8) man page:

An efficient method of staggering incremental dumps to minimize the number of tapes follows:

o Always start with a level 0 backup, for example:

/sbin/dump -0u -f /dev/nsa0 /usr/src

This should be done at set intervals, say once a month or once every two months, and on a set of fresh tapes that is saved forever.

o After a level 0, dumps of active file systems are taken on a daily basis, using a modified Tower of Hanoi algorithm, with this sequence of dump levels:

3 2 5 4 7 6 9 8 9 9 ...

For the daily dumps, it should be possible to use a fixed number of tapes for each day, used on a weekly basis. Each week, a level 1 dump is taken, and the daily Hanoi sequence repeats beginning with 3. For weekly dumps, another fixed set of tapes per dumped file system is used, also on a cyclical basis.

After several months or so, the daily and weekly tapes should get rotated out of the dump cycle and fresh tapes brought in.

Replace tapes with CDs . . . .

Anyway, I may do some of this, though not in a refined case, when I rebuild my office. I'll be sharing it and so will need to make it a little more livable (ie, not geek bachelor digs with crap all over the place). So I'll likely have my superserver with all the attachments (print/file/music serving), all on an old PII233.

I think the form factor is the difficult part: as I noted before on my site, Intel hardware will need fans and will be noisy as a result, not as much like a home appliance as the envisioned iServe.

The other tricky part will be the UI: ideally, you want someone to uncrate it, hang it on the wall (I'm serious about that part), connect to it, wirelessly or otherwise, and start turning on services. I don't mind/am used to mucking with non-standard ASCII text files, but there's no reason why webmin couldn't be employed here with some useful defaults.

I think this is all interesting and do-able, but it's harder to do than roll out new PowerBooks: the risks are also higher. But iLife may be the precursor to some of these ideas being embodied in hardware. It also lacks the TV integration, but it could be done, I think.

Posted by: paul at Jan 11, 2003 12:36:57 AM

and from one of your links above, I found this link on how to record a program.

I could see doing it, if I had that fine grained control. Heck, I'd put the thing in my neighbor's house (they have a dish) and pull the programs across via 802.11b to watch 'em.

Posted by: paul at Jan 11, 2003 12:41:38 AM

Sorry to monopolize the thread, but there was some conversation on the FreeBSD-questions list about spoofing .Mac's Backup service (since all it seems to be is tar and compress and copy to another box with a nicer interface).

I want to look into that anyway . . .

Posted by: paul at Jan 11, 2003 12:43:39 AM

Re: .mac server: I found the link below addressing .mac backup services; the second one emulates an iCal server.

From deadly.org
From MacOSXHints.com

Re: Backup to CD-R or DVD-R: CD-R would be great for spot backup (and for VideoCDs), but I don't see anyone backing up a 100-gigabyte server to 150 CD-Rs. DVD-R would still require 20 DVDs, and the units retail for $300, which would make one the most expensive component of the whole system.

Re: Hanging it on the wall: Combine that with Apple's new patent for a dynamic case and the new Siemens PowerLine access point.

Suddenly you could have a small point of presence in several rooms, with a case that would let you know if there was e-mail, voice mail, or a system problem through the case's appearance. Use one to interface with your stereo, another to extend your Wi-Fi network. Add a speaker, a microphone for voice commands and perhaps a few buttons, and you have a voice-over-IP system, as well.

Posted by: Frank at Jan 11, 2003 1:34:13 AM