In the mid-1990s, Apple developed a set-top box. It was black, had the multi-colored Apple logo on the front, and was shaped like the “pizza box” cases of the LC series. It’s unclear exactly what this box had to offer, and Google yields conflicting stories. There’s some consensus that it had TiVo-like features, which would’ve made it entirely revolutionary. Apple never released this product publicly. There was the Mac TV (a black LC575) with video inputs and a remote, and of course RCA and S-video cards built in to various Quadras, Centrises, Performas, and Power Macs. There was never any real integration or software to make an acceptable media center, nor was there acceptable media or high speed internet to make media distribution possible.

Then there was the Pippin, an internet-capable gaming device designed to connect to your television. It ran on a 66MHZ PowerPC processor and a 14.4 modem, was unreasonably slow both in and out of cyberspace, and ran on a variant of MacOS. It required you to subscribe to a specific ISP for $25 each month. There was basically no software for the thing. And it cost $599. Apple never released this device under the Apple name, instead choosing to license the technology to third parties. Only one, Bandai, ever produced anything with it. By the time it hit the United States in 1996, such beasts as the Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation, and Sega Saturn were already on the market. They were cheaper, had more powerful graphics architectures, and there were actually titles for them. It was ill-fated from the start.

Airport Express allows users to wirelessly stream high-quality audio from their computers to a stereo with optical or analog inputs. Apple just demonstrated a product known internally as iTV, and this device will do for video what AirPort Express did for audio. It takes the concept to the next level by allowing any wireless Mac or PC to stream video wirelessly to a television. There’s been talk for the past ten years about computer technology gathering around the television, but the bridge from computer to TV was never available to Mac users. The iTV essentially brings all digital media into the living room, talking to the wireless computers on your network and dispensing their media on the TV. Your iPhoto library, purchased movies from the iTunes store, all of your music, streaming movie trailers from the Quicktime trailer site, your podcasts, television shows from the iTunes store…all controlled by the elegant Apple remote with stunning graphics on your flat television.

Apple now has a complete end-to-end solution for all types of media, and they’ve done it artfully. At one end is iTunes and iPhoto, the other a television. In between is an iPod and iTV. My only concern is that video from sources other than the iTunes store, and in most any format, will work with this thing. Unlike the set top box of yore, this box is networked with the rest of your home, and unlike the Pippin, there’s no required ISP, unreasonable price tag, or lack of software. It’s going to be big.

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