Front Row To Go

Everyone and his brother has a prediction about Apple and the mythical “netbook.” This is mine.

Before I get into the actual prediction, let me say that I’ve come to this conclusion by looking at Apple as a business, not as a supplier of shiny gadgets for our technolust. As much as we love the things they make, their goal as a corporation is to make the stockholder’s happy. They do that by selling lots of products. We’re just a means to that end.

A lot of the speculation regarding the netbook says that it provides functionality in the price gap between a $200 iPhone and a $1000 MacBook. While that’s true, it misses the point.

Apple would rather sell you another device in addition to the ones they already sell. They’re not interested in cutting into (presumably healthy) MacBook sales with a netbook. Likewise, selling a bigger touch device could cut into iPhone sales: keep your crappy cell phone and buy the netbook to throw in your purse or backpack.

One of the things that saved Apple was a simplified product line based around professional and consumer uses. Does it really make sense to have more than one consumer-level device for laptop computing? The MacBook already kicks ass in that department: having another device in that category just muddies the water.

But what if there was a device that could work in conjunction with your other Apple products? Something that extended their capabilities. Something that made each product better for a few hundred dollars.

Apple and their shareholders would love this: you’d buy the iPhone and the “netbook”. And eventually the MacBook. And maybe an Apple TV. And probably an iPod, too.

So what are some of the problems with the current hardware lineup?

  • iPhone / iPod touch – Small screen, small keyboard.
  • Mac – No touch screen, running Front Row prevents using your Mac for other things.
  • Apple TV – crappy remote, no keyboard.
  • iPod – Very small screen with no touch screen or keyboard.

So what kind of product could fill in these gaps? I call it “Front Row To Go.” Think of it as a second screen for the current hardware. Something that could:

  • Display photos on a larger screen than on the iPhones and iPods. It would also be effective as an adjunct to iPhoto on the desktop: Microsoft’s Surface prototype shows how effective it is to display pictures on a horizontal surface that can be manipulated by multiple viewers.
  • Provide a touch screen keyboard for the iPhone and Apple TV: a better input mechanism than hunting and pecking on chiclets. (Maybe this is the reason Bluetooth keyboards aren’t available for the iPhone.)
  • Show movies on a larger screen: anyone who’s taken a transoceanic flight knows that looking at the iPhone/iPod screen for more than a couple hours can be quite tiresome. An added benefit is that the player’s battery wouldn’t be consumed by the display’s power needs.
  • Provide touch input to desktop applications. Multi-touch is never going to happen on a vertically oriented display, so make a separate device that works horizontally. An obvious benefit to developers is that they don’t have to rewrite code: if it makes sense, multi-touch can be added to enhance current applications.

As with all other Apple products, Front Row To Go could obviously work as a standalone device. Sync your content onto the device and take it with you: no more dragging a laptop to a family reunion just because Aunt Bessie can’t see the tiny photos on the iPhone. Get your bookmarks and feeds from the Mac and surf the web using Front Row To Go’s version of Safari while you’re listening to music or watching TV.

As far as how these features would be implemented, that’s anyone’s guess. There might be an API for developers, or maybe it’s a closed system. The device might be able to play iPhone games or run multiple iPhone applications at once (much like the current Dashboard works in Mac OS X.) With a common base of OS X running throughout the product line, pretty much anything is possible.

And that gets to the real point of this essay: think about what Apple has learned from the halo effect surrounding the iPod (and now the iPhone.) If you have any doubt that this effect is alive and well, drop into an Apple Store on any weekend and take a look around: plenty of customers who are happy with one product and looking at others.

In my opinion, these consumers are the ones that Apple will target with a “netbook,” not the ones that are jonesing for a sexy little machine that fills a perceived gap in the product range. I hope I’m right, because I’d love to be one of those customers lining up to buy Front Row To Go.