Apple rumors craziness: the “airport front row” not yet tm

Last week’s Apple announcement, and especially the rumors craziness leading to that event, got me thinking. How to react when you are a company in the spotlight where your fans dream of wild things and post information about what your next product will be, setting expectations that are getting harder and harder to meet. By the way, did you know that Apple is about to release the Airport FrontRow, after the Airport, the Airport Extreme and the Airport Express.

And to get the Apple legal suite off my back in case I actually got this one right, this is pure speculations based on what Apple is currently doing, who their target users, mixed with a few readings on the rumor site, discussions with friends who don’t know more than I do, added with a few of my own ideas. Sounds like fun… enjoy!

It is very interesting to look at the hype around Apple. Look at their February 28, 2006 event and at the rumors floating around the Internet before that… anywhere from the iPod Video to the MacBook Tablet. From a Product Management / PR perspective, it must be very tricky for Apple. While it is an amazing place to be when everyone talks about you, your products and even more about your yet-to-be announced products as if they where already released, it sets a level of expectation from the market (you might have heard of the concept of analysts and shareholders) and the end users that the company itself does not control and sometimes cannot meet. How could you… look at the great things someone can do with Paint Shop Pro (or Painter for those on a Mac), look at the number of science fiction books out there, not even to consider the great creative minds who happen to be Macintosh fans.

So let’s step back a little. It started shortly after MacWorld San Fransisco 2006 when a fake Special Event announcement with what seemed an Airport Express on the invitation card did find its way to the rumor sites (more on the Airport side later, I told you that also had a cool rumor to launch). It started with everything in every direction, using keywords such as iPod, Airport, HDTV (hey, the year of HD was last year) and not to forget the star of the moment… Intel, or should I say MacTel.

A few weeks later, when the real Special Event announcement with big view of the iCal icon did go out (with the mention of fun new products), everyone got even wilder. Now it was all about iPod Video, the iPod Boombox, the MacBook Tablet (most of them thanks to the patents and trade marks Apple filed in the mean-time). Not to say that these might never happen, but considering that Apple released the iPod nano and 5th Generation iPod at the end of last year, that would have counted for a very short life cycle. While the unit volumes for these devices enable Apple a true economy of scale, that doesn’t mean they are already obsolete. Outside the fact that my 60Gb 5G iPod is full and I can’t wait for the 80Gb model, and considering the previous 8 to 12 months life-cylce on average, the iPod Video, if introduced in the short future, would most certainly expand the range of the iPods with a higher price tag. And let’s keep in mind that all the Apple branded iPod accessories have now a universal dock. This means that the size of the iPod Video will most certainly have to fit in there.

Now at the actual event, Apple announced the iPod Hi-Fi (what was before that code-named the BoomBox) as well as a intel-based Mac Mini (and a leather case, but that’s another story). These seem to be great products that make a lot of sense in Apple’s product offering. But if you look at all the news sites out there, you get the feeling that it was more of a disappointment, that these new announcements did not meet the level of expectations. Now you have to wonder how much of the expectation was build by Apple, and how much was created by the great fan base. And don’t get me wrong. I am a Mac user (and a fan) and would love to see all these rumors become reality, even if my bank account would not survive.

Looking back, I really enjoy reading all these rumor sites shortly after the announcements, looking how far off they where after the event compared to what they expected, and to look at the sentence: “As initially reported in [Insert date here], the new [insert product name] was announced today”. Please note that the time between initial report and today can be anywhere between 1 week to 3 years. The iPod Hi-Fi is certainly a product that has been in the making for quite a while, and the iPod Dock still didn’t make it into the Mac Mini with built-in PVR capabilities. well, I am certain that we will see the second one again in a not so distant future… 😉

And to finish-up on the rumor sites, I need to mention that Think Secret and Apple Insider are really great sites to read, and are in no way the target of my comments above. They actually have quite reliable sources inside the company and do a lot of information checking before posting them.

So back to the Airport FrontRow, the next big little thing from Apple. Think of it this way. It’s a FrontRow capable Airport box. This Wi-Fi (for the users who don’t understand the Apple language) device – potentially a base station – has a few plugs. Next to the power, you would have a audio-out (with digital capabilities, as with everything Apple these days), a DVI (or potentially an HDMI) port, a RJ45 network port and a Video / S-Video out plug. In addition to that, on the front, there would be a simple infra-red captor and two USB ports. And on the top, an iPod universal dock (just because I can). In the box, you get only a the basic cables (power, analog audio and video) as well as a nice little Apple remote. You plug this into your HD Television and into your sound system (after having acquired the extra Apple-branded cables) and turn it on.

That’s when the FrontRow aspect pops-up. Your HDTV shows a nice front-row UI that you can control in the exact same way as on the iMac, MacBook Pro or Mac Mini, using the Apple Remote. If you have an iPod plugged into the dock on the top, you can listen to your music and, while it plays the music full screen, the Airport FrontRow will show full-screen visual effects (as with iTunes) with the album, track, artist and artwork. And better yet, your iPod will charge up while plugged into the Airport FrontRow. Cool so far? Wait, it gets better.

Now that’s when the Airport aspect of this next big little thing comes into play. As there is no built-in storage on this device, if you have a wireless network, you can detect iTunes music libraries shared over the network (with that thing called Bonjour), watch movie trailers, videocasts, TV Shows and the full-length high-definition movies that you purchased on the iTunes Movie Store (oh, I forgot to mention about that one, but I believe it has already been covered in all possible lengths by other rumor sites). You can also watch your picture libraries shared through iPhoto and all the other cool things you can with what comes on a modern Mac.

By now, you must be wondering why there are two USB ports on the front of the Airport FrontRow. Well, let’s make it short. Instead of only focussing on Music, pictures and video, Apple wants this to be to center of your digital life (that was the idea when Apple announced iLife a long time ago), so that you can simply plug in your digital camera for photos to be displayed in real-time on the TV screen. Photos can also be transfered over the network to an iPhoto library. Why not add a joypad of some sort and play games, and perhaps a keyboard and a mouse so that Airport FrontRow becomes a WebTV, remote terminal to your computer, … But now it gets crazy :-)

All in all, Apple, keep up with the great products. I know your customer is very demanding, and I can’t wait April 1st, 2006 to see what great new things you will release for your anniversary.