Thursday, April 05, 2007

Watch out Sonos Apple may be coming to eat your lunch

For those that don't know Sonos is company that makes a very cool product that looks like something Apple would make. They make a whole house audio distribution product that uses wireless technology. They come in bundles that you can add to. So for instance the Z80 bundle ($999) contains two small Z80 ZonePlayer which accept the streaming music and deliver to your amplified speakers. The Z100 is a ZonePlayer that does the same thing but includes a built in amplifier so you simply attach speakers and is available in bundle form for $1199. You can play the same song in up to 32 user created zones or your can stream different songs to different zones using the Sonos Controller which resembles an iPod with a 3.5 inch screen and circular navigation and button controls.

The neat thing is that you can hook a CD up to one of the ZonePlayer and have its audio streamed throughout the home. It supports many of your popular internet music services like Audible and Rhapsody. The reviews of the Sonos system are absolutely glowing. If you've thought about how cool the rich and famous have it with their grandiose homes with audio piping into every room well your turn is here for $999 to start. That buys you a Sonos Controller and two Z80.

Now with that out of the way it's time to get to the topic at hand. Apple. As good as the Sonos system is I believe Apple is doing a clever end around and will be attacking this market. Note that the Sonos system is audio only and every device in a Sonos chain is more expensive than an Apple TV. The hint that Apple has given us clear. The Apple TV could have used a more simple and cheap design. It did not have to use OS X for or even contain a GPU (as all the video codec supported would work using the included CPU only including drawing the Quartz Frontrow interface.

The Apple TV seems a bit over-engineered for the purposes that it is marketed for today. I believe that that Apple will evolve the product in a couple of vital ways.

1. They will eventually upgrade the Frontrow/Backrow software to support zones. You will be able to to listen or watch media anywhere you set a zone up. Even better in the media you watch will easily follow you to other zones. Want to pick up watching that episode of Heroes to the bedroom ..simply switch the zone and the Apple TV will begin to buffer only what is left on the bedroom zone Apple TV. Right now Apple have fooled everyone into thinking that the Apple TV only accepts streams but it has the design infrastructure to send out streams as well.

2. Notice how the Apple TV does not have a LCD interface.? The TV must be on to navigate the music lists or queue up movies or photos. This is really gaffe in UI design similar to the frustrations DVD Audio owners faced with TV menus. I don't think Apple plans to keep the status quo going. By adding an "Apple TV Controller" Apple could enable control of 1 to many Apple TV without the need for the TV to be on. Even better they could utilize Multi Touch and offer Universal remote capabilities in addition to controlling music/movie/Photo distribution to the zones.

3. The Apple TV will offer a full web browsing experience. This should usher in iTunes purchases, streaming internet radio and many other web tools. Now that the Apple TV is a peer computer on the network capable of streaming data as well as receiving it the ability to access online content becomes even more important.

I fully expect Apple TV to grow into a billion dollar product-line. Apple is deftly starting small yet clearly showing they have the Apple TV architecture to grow the product in new ways. Apple has to be thinking that they way to success is not selling one Apple TV to one family. It's selling multiple Apple TV to a family along with more accessories. Once a home distribution network is setup the Apple TV in essence becomes your onramp. What type of partnerships could Apple work out here. Tivo support? Does Apple need to create a DVR when a your current DVR content can simply be streamed throughout your network?

If Jim Dalrymple's family is already fighting over the Apple TV then clearly there's a need for multiple units. Developing a cohesive system becomes even more vital to Apple because their goal is have half of all songs on iTunes be DRM free within a year I believe. Apple is in a prime position to move forward and push the Digital Lifestyle into the networked age. Color me shocked if Apple doesn't move into this realm within 18 months.

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