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Tim Cook and Apple keep talking about entering into new product categories. Analysts and the media alike have been going wild with speculation on what that means. But what about categories that Apple already has products in?
I’m talking about Apple products that some of us use every day but really are not all that exciting to talk about. Products that if done right could help usher in a new era of making cloud-based services more personal and closer to home.
Debuting on July 21, 1999 at Macworld New York, the first Airport Base Station brought Wi-Fi into the home the Apple way. Since that time, the Airport has added improved security, the ability to share files and back up your computer, connect printers to your network, and even stream music throughout your house. But is that enough? The following are a few examples on how Apple can catch up and perhaps surpass other products similar to the Airport by doing thing’s Apple’s way:
AirPrint printers, AirPlay music and AirDisk drives
The Airport lineup of devices has an odd mixture of capabilities. The Airport Express, for instance, behaves more like the Apple TV in some respects as it can bring both digital and analog audio streaming to any home theatre component or speaker system by using AirPlay. This ability however is limited to the Airport Express as both the Extreme and Time Capsule do not have an audio out port. Unlike the Apple TV, the Airport Express can serve as a wireless router, Wi-Fi extender, or network access point bringing an Ethernet connection to any spot in your house, behaving more like the Airport Extreme and Time Capsule.
Then there is the USB port. The USB port on the Airport Express is for printers only while the USB port on both the Airport Extreme and Time Capsule is for both printers and USB hard drives. When you connect a printer to the USB port it turns the printer into a network printer, not an AirPrint printer. When you connect a hard drive to the USB port it turns it into Network Attached Storage. By default and using only Apple technologies, neither is accessible to iOS devices.
It would be great if all of the Airport devices could allow both OS X and iOS devices alike to access any printer via AirPrint, any sound systems via AirPlay, and any attached storage device via AirDisk.
Back to my iOS personal cloud
Time Capsule comes equipped with either a 2TB or 3TB internal hard drive. This hard drive can be used as Network Attached Storage or as a sharable Time Machine backup drive for OS X. While any OS X device can access the hard drive within the Time Capsule, it takes third-party apps to access the drive from any iOS device. And only OS X can access this drive remotely over the internet by using iCloud’s Back to My Mac feature. No iOS device can access this personal cloud storage locally or across the internet.
Another great feature of currently available with Back to My Mac is its ability to share screens between OS X devices. With OS X it is possible to use this feature to access your Mac, using another Mac, from across the internet. To do so from an iOS device you will have to use a third-party app, and you won’t be using Back to My Mac.
Apple can change all of this by making Back to My Mac work for both OS X and iOS, allowing devices running either operating system capable of accessing the drive within a Time Capsule, as well as access any screen connected to its network.
Time Capsule for iOS backups and update files
With iOS devices, there are two options for backing up, either use iTunes on your Mac or PC, or use iCloud. The advantage that backing up to iTunes is that you can utilize third-party apps to gain access to your device’s backup history. It is not nearly as slick or user-friendly as Apple’s own Time Machine, but it could be if Apple wanted it to be.
Time Capsule devices could take things one step further by downloading local update files for your OS X and iOS devises. Having a single copy of each update file for the devices you use on your local network would certainly cut down on network update times, and could provide for faster recovery times when you have to restore from backup.
Faster updates and a way to access iOS backups stored locally on your network would help bring what makes Time Machine a valuable part of OS X to iOS devices.
iTunes server on the internet
Having your music library stored on your computer and available via iTunes through Home Sharing requires you to leave it on all of the time. Not only that, but it can require a lot of storage space depending on how big your music library is, and how many movies and television episodes you own. With desktops already being replaced by laptops, and laptops starting to be replaced by tablets, and everything moving to memory-based storage like flash drives and SSDs, the amount of free space one has is actually shrinking rather than growing.
Storing your iTunes Media library on your Time Capsule makes sense given that it is one of the few devices that Apple sells with a hard drive. Especially if you can share access to your library directly from the Time Capsule. Using Apple’s own iTunes Home Sharing technology, the Time Capsule can be used to stream audio and video to authorized devices on your network.
Once your music library is stored on a Time Capsule, and once the Time Capsule becomes accessible over the internet to iOS devices through iCloud’s Back to My Mac technology, then it should be easy to access your music library from across the internet. It would effectively use something like Home Sharing when you are away.
Most of what is necessary to create a media based network appliance that can be used both at home and over the internet is already there. The market for the home based personal cloud has emerged just enough for Apple to see what works and what doesn’t work. The key technologies are just not exposed across the board to both iOS and OS X devices alike. Having such a central hub for all of your media, files, backups and updates for all of your Apple devices is likely to become more popular as we move away from the era of desktop computing.