By John Gruber
Flatfile: Never format messy spreadsheets again.
Now — during the 2007 membership drive to help fund this web site — is as good a time as any to mention that I did pick up one new side gig recently: a rotating spot as a back-page columnist in Macworld magazine. The April 2007 issue, on newsstands now, has my first column: “Apple’s Computer, Incorporated”.
The point of which, more or less, is that the handwringing over Apple’s corporate name change from “Apple Computer” to just plain “Apple” is foolish. The idea is that the name change is a sign that the company is shifting its focus from computers to consumer electronics like iPods, Apple TV, and the iPhone.
What they’re missing is that the entire consumer electronics industry is shifting toward making computers; Apple’s advantage is that they design better computers, have a better OS, and write better software than any of their competitors. They’re arguably more of a computer company now than they were 10 years ago. When’s the last time you heard someone call for them to get out of the hardware business recently? (For most of the 1990s, there were dozens of jackass columnists and “industry analysts” calling for Apple to do just that.)
The release of Apple TV has proven this point. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, the main points being that it’s fun and easy. Great software, well-integrated with cleverly-designed hardware — which pretty much describes every successful product Apple has shipped in the last 30 years.
Under the hood, Apple TV is a Mac. Its OS is a slightly modified version of Mac OS X, with its Front Row-style user interface provided by a new application that replaces the Finder. (According to Macworld’s Jason Snell, Apple’s code name for the Apple TV app is “Back Row”.)
And because it’s Mac OS X, if you want to hack on it, you can. The device has only been shipping for a few weeks, and already there’s Apple TV Hacks, a web site chock full of information on how to diddle with an Apple TV.
Apple TV effectively has two completely different interfaces. For the mass market, there’s the official UI: on the software side, a simple software app that makes media sharing across a home network easy and fun; hardware-wise, a few simple ports between the Apple TV and your TV and stereo. Apple TV offers fewer options and fewer features than most of its competitors in the “home media server” space. It’s the iPod strategy: Pick the important features, implement them really well, and present them in an obvious UI.
But for nerds and hackers, there’s an entirely different interface: Mac OS X. Is it for the faint of heart? No. Is it sanctioned? No. But Apple’s stance on Apple TV hacking is clearly neutral, not antagonistic. Apple TV’s official UI has fewer options than competing products, but its unofficial capabilities offer far more hackability for nerds.
One common knock against Apple is that they design products that are “too closed”, but it seems clear that Apple TV is in fact more hackable than Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, or TiVo. Apple TV seems to strike the perfect balance — regular people never have to get their hands dirty with complex nerdery, but those of us who want to easily can.