Digital World: A lesson in democracy?

Apple TV, the product that is supposed to do for video what iPods have done for music was released to the public a week ago.

By DAVID SHAMAH
March 28, 2007 07:27
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apple computer screen 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Apple TV, the product that is (was) supposed to do for video what iPods have done for music - i.e., sell a lot of media product for Apple - was released to the public exactly one week ago, on March 20. By the time the weekend came around, though, the hackers had managed to get it to perform all sorts of tricks that one could imagine were not part of the skill set Apple had in mind for the product - because these tricks could potentially interfere with the income stream the company no doubt saw itself grabbing. And therein lies a lesson: No matter what restrictions manufacturers of hardware or software, and no matter what rights management restrictions TV, movie or music producers encode in their digital files, someone, somewhere is going to crack it - and word, as well as the crack, will spread very quickly. Apple TV is the video equivalent of Apple's Airport for wireless audio broadcasts on home stereos (http://digital.newzgeek.com/081605-airport.html), but with a hard drive. Apple TV is more or less a set-top box designed to integrate the digital media on your computer with your TV. Inside the "pizza box" style case - it's a bit flatter and wider than the Mac Mini's "candy box" case - is a 40 GB hard drive, an Intel processor (said to be a derivative of a Pentium M running at about 1 gHz), wired (Ethernet) and wireless network connections, audio and video (HDTV and analog RCA) out to TV connectors, and a remote control. So far, it's only available in the US, but it has a universal transformer, and will work just fine with both NTSC and PAL TV sets. It is designed to plug right into iTunes (Mac or PC) and download to the Apple TV box music, video, podcasts and pictures. The ideal use of Apple TV is to purchase video content from Apple's iTunes Store, which sells many TV shows for a $2 or $3 apiece. You can also, of course, stream your home video or other locally stored video - in MP4 (iPod) format. Audio codecs supported include MP3, AIFF, AAC, and WAV. While Apple TV would seem limited to be of use to those with iPods (who else would have large collections of MP4 video files?), there are plenty of free tools that let you convert from AVI or other formats into MP4 (see http://tinyurl.com/2g3yfv). So, Apple TV is the hardware component of iTunes/Apple Store for video. Well, the model worked great for music, right? Why not for video, too, the Apple people concluded? Or so the popular thinking goes. To get the files onto the Apple TV hard drive, you sync up the device with the computer where your iTunes audio and video files are stored. Using the easy to follow menus you sync up the computer's files with the device's (the first sync is far faster if you physically connect the Apple TV to your home network, as opposed to relying on wireless transfer; incremental syncs can then be done wirelessly). If this sounds like something you should be able to do with a regular PC equipped with a TV card to connect to a television and a home network connection - you're probably right. From what I can tell, Apple TV is like a Mac Mini with a dedicated operating system that focuses on media (if this sounds to you like the Vista Media Center I've been discussing for the past couple of weeks, you're right - it does to me, too). So why not just invest in a PC with a TV card, etc? Because Apple TV is cheaper; for $299, you get a basic media machine that will serve as your, well, media server. If you've got an extra computer lying around, of course, you could get a TV card and a set of cables for a lot less, but if you don't, Apple TV is a reasonably priced alternative. Of course, for a little more, you could get a fully functional Mac Mini with a faster processor, or a PC with the TV card that will do lots of stuff besides serve up media to your TV. Indeed, Apple TV really is a scaled down PC, those who have dissected it say. But what if you could somehow turn the cheaper Apple TV into more than it was meant to be? Out of the box, Apple TV is pretty limiting, designed as it is to connect to the Apple Store and download media you buy from Apple - which, if that was all the product could do, would more or less make it useless for us in Israel, because Apple won't sell you a song or TV show, even if you send them a cashier's check for double the retail price in advance (http://digital.newzgeek.com/051606-allofmp3.html). That's where the hacking community comes in. It took them just a couple of days to come up with a series of tricks that can transform an Apple TV into a useful media center for any purpose, able to play files with many more codecs than Apple intended. We really do have to salute these folks, for being willing to potentially sacrifice their $300 by voiding their warranty - a brave move, without question (although from most of the hacking accounts I've seen, nobody managed to mess up their Apple TV so badly that it would not work). The key was the discovery that the Apple TV's operating system (remember, it's supposed to act as a turnkey unit with no computer-style configuration) is a stripped down version of osX, the current Mac operating system. Since the basic components of the OS were there, reasoned the hackers, there was no reason that what was removed could not be returned. And so, hackers within just a few days set up their Apple TVs to support files encoded with the popular XviD codec (http://tinyurl.com/386gv4); expanded and upgraded the 40 GB (a paltry amount for major media consumers really) hard drive (http://tinyurl.com/2tn77x); ripping DVDs to allow playing on Apple TV (http://tinyurl.com/2yfxa8); even adding VLC (http://www.newzgeek.com/vlc.html) on an Apple TV, something that would allow any file to be played at all. And, the pared down operating system is available in the "usual places" for download by one and all - and all this within a week of the release of the device. So just what is the lesson here, anyway? Is it that "the people, united, will never be defeated," as they used to say? Or, is it that despite their best efforts, large corporations are no match for the ingenuity of the average computer user? Or that the Apple TV phenomenon is just another indication that in the end, democracy and the people always win out, even if the powers that be try to keep them down? Hey, what do I know - I'm just a geeky computer writer. I do have a question of my own, though. Isn't it strange that Apple would release a product that could so easily be hacked to do the opposite of what its manufacturers wanted it to do - get people top buy videos from the Apple Store? If you could easily use Apple TV to move illegally downloaded files onto your TV set, then how does the product help entrench Apple in the video world? Was there nothing they could not have done to prevent these modifications from taking place (I'll answer that one; yes, there are things they could have done). And aren't they aware of how adept the hardware hacker community is? How could they not anticipate these developments? Like I said, all I can do is ask questions. But it seems to me that you don't get to sell a lot of anything and remain in business for almost three decades by missing the market trends. Which means there must be other reasons, unknown to us at this time (and which cannot be speculated upon at this moment due to lack of space) for the product to be developed and released in this manner. Regardless, one thing is clear; in modern times, any attempt to corner the market on anything is doomed to fail, and if a company wants to make big money, it's got to figure out a way to harness market forces that might otherwise have done it harm in its favor. http://digital.newzgeek.com

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