Front Row: Assault on the Living Room?

I must confess to gushing rather a lot when I first saw Front Row. The way the normal Mac OS X interface slides out, the enormous icons come flying in, the subtle reflections – it is really quite a beautiful thing.

It is also something of a new direction for Apple*, who, up until now have ignored a market which has been – and this is dangerous overstatement, but no matter – dominated hereto by Microsoft, whose Windows Media Centre Edition is, they hope, to grace the TV screens of millions around the world in the not-too-distant future.

I must say, I have never found the concept especially enticing, particularly when it is built on a platform as shaky as Windows. And it seems that I am not alone. Despite Bill Gates’s repeated banging of the convergence drum, Windows Media Centre Edition-based boxes are not exactly flying off the shelves. And why would they? Who wants Windows – that haunting incarnation of the office – in their living room? Even Paul Thurrott, who I have lambasted at length before for his pro-Microsoft sycophancy, says of it:

“I really enjoy using Windows XP Media Center Edition, and despite some glitches and missing functionality…”

To be fair, that was three years ago, and it wasn’t – allegedly – the final version. He hoped then that 2003 would herald the bringing on board of other manufacturers and launches in other markets. I have seen a few subdued adverts for MCE boxes made by Elonex here, but nothing else. Windows XP Media Centre Edition is not, I think we can safely say, taking the world by storm.

Enter Apple, with its focus on simplicity and ease of use. Whilst it would be hyperbole to say that Front Row has won me over and made me a total digital media centre convert, I am beginning to see that there might be some merits.

It’s certainly fair to say that Apple’s approach is very different to Microsoft’s. We all saw this when Jobs introduced the new features of the iMac at his keynote presentation the other week. Specifically, whereas Apple’s iPod shuffle-like remote sports a mere 6 buttons, Microsoft-based offerings pack more than 20. (For amusement, visit Microsoft’s Windows Media Centre web site, where the remote control is given pride of place. Count the buttons. Go on, it’s fun.)

Front Row’s on-screen interface design is simple too – four icons in a 3D Dock-style configuration (in that they get bigger when you mouse over them, etc.) and then a system of hierarchical menus with which we are now all very familiar – it’s just like the iPod. The only thing they could have done better – and I strongly suspect that they wanted to – would have been to provide a scroll wheel on the remote. I presume that bandwidth limitations prevented this.

But beautiful as it is, I am still not convinced that I would want one in my living room. Even the 20” screen is too small to replace most televisions, and in such a scenario it would still require an external TV tuner (something that Windows XP MCE devices seem to include). Otherwise – and for it to be a truly decent viewing experience – you need to plug it in to a television, which leaves you with two screens, and this cuts down on the elegance factor. But no matter. It might, I suppose, in tandem with the aforementioned TV tuner, be at home in, say, a classy student’s bedroom at university or a one room studio apartment in the city. Oh, and as a computer, it looks beautiful anywhere.

So, should one make anything of Apple’s foray into your living room? Is this the Next Big Thing? As it stands, probably not, although in terms of interface refinement, it is a game stab at the genre. The iMac would need to include a TV tuner and Front Row PVR functionality to make a fully-fledged competitor to Windows XP MCE, and it would be interesting to see what sort of enhancements Apple could bring to the PVR scene. In the meantime, it’s really just because-we-can eye candy, and, well, there’s nothing wrong with that.

(* New Apple, anyway, which I define as being post-Jobs’s return to the company. Go back)

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