iMac Stepping Stone To An Entertainment Thin-Client?

by Chris Howard Oct 19, 2005

What do you get if you combine TV and a computer? No, certainly not the iMac MC Mark I.

You do get a bit of a headache though. And fights. The TV is a multi-user device whilst the computer is predominantly single user. Furthermore, using the computer comfortably, requires a desk environment rather than having it sitting up in the entertainment unit with your TV, DVD, VCR and stereo.

When I write my thesis on “The Anagramanic Patternations in Bi-dupliar Mono Tokenisms”, I’m probably going to want a bit of peace and quiet. But I’ll be rather unpopular if I take the shiny new Media Centre (MC) and hide away with it in the study.

Which raises the question, who’d really buy an MC? Early adopters and those with more dollars than sense? Combining the computer into our entertainment units is nonsensical. Taking the functionality and power of a computer and shoving it in a multimedia device makes more sense, provided you leave off the information processing side of the computer. Front Row makes sense on it’s own if that’s all the computer is for, but otherwise, what a waste of a computer!

I could get some other hard disk based personal video recorder (PVR) like device to do that. Toss my photos, music and videos on it and it’d do the trick just nicely.

Computers and TV just don’t belong together.


Getting the skinny on the future
Let’s hark back an eon to the days of yore, before the multi-button mouse, nanos and video playback on iPods and when iSight was an expensive add on to an iMac, back to when we lost our innocence, when our world was turned upside down by the Intel announcement (what a year it has been for announcements - but that’s for another article… plus the year’s not over yet). Now, got that dreamy hazy flashback thing going on in you head? And it’s in black and white - or sepia? Good.

Remember this article I wrote Macintel: The Thin Client Theory where I discussed the world moving towards thin client? A thin client environment is where the operating system and applications are hosted remotely on a server and the client computer is very basic - simply displaying the pictures, so to speak. Think of it like television. Your TV is just a client on the TV network, with all the programs served to you from a remote location. You do not need to have a TV station inside your television.

As that article alluded, before long, computers will go the way of television, they will become a terminal bringing information and entertainment to us.

But before they do, maybe there’s one more step.

As is well known, Microsoft have Windows Terminal Server for thin client computing. In the Linux world, you might not know, but there is the Linux Terminal Server Project

Search as I may, I could find nothing to suggest Apple have even considered developing their own terminal server for OS X.

But watching the “One More Thing…” video, I suddenly got the feeling that maybe Apple Terminal Server (ATS) is in the wings. Watching the Front Row demo I decided it wasn’t enough on it’s own. Who wants to watch that stuff on their computer from their sofa. Are we all going to have to rearrange our living rooms so that the computer desk is in better alignment with the sofa.  The Feng Shui folks will have fun trying to work that one out! Or bring the computer out of the study or bedroom? But if all we use the computer for is Front Row, then sure, sit it on the entertainment unit.

The beginning
As it stands though, the iMac is not a TV replacement. But add in a TV tuner and PVR software and we’re getting somewhere. Of course, the iMac is not the ideal computer for this as the screen is limited. But the Mac mini…

Ok but now your computer is stuck on the entertainment unit and your back to the original dilemma caused by needing to use the computer in peace and quiet.

There’s something nagging here… Chris talked about it yesterday a bit in Apple’s Media Center PC End Around “Apple’s strategy is an interesting end around of the Media Center but it is entirely unclear if it is an offering consumers will be interested enough to actually employ.”

When MC meets ATS
What if longer term - maybe with the release of Leopard late next year - Steve says “One more thing… we’ve added terminal server functionality to Leopard”? Combine that with a Media Center Mac and things start to fall into place.

All of a sudden you get one central grunty iMac G6 MC with 20 inch screen (or souped up Mac mini G6 with some huge plasma display) and 2GB RAM, serving mum’s, dad’s, and each of the kid’s thin client devices (G6=Intel). You capture and expand in two markets at once.

So now our investment in a computer that is going to be used more like a TV, suddenly makes sense because now it also provides applications to all the thin-client equipped devices in our house. Even the fridge if you want. No longer is its information processing abilities being wasted (the Media Center that is, not the fridge).

There are some technicalities to overcome such as using the server Mac as a Media Centre whilst others are running Mac sessions off it, so you’d definitely need 2GB of memory and a quick processor. As for the thin clients, they could be easily be driveless Mac minis - in my previous job I had already successfully trialled the Mac mini as a thin-client device on a Windows Terminal Server network - and it was good value for money.

So what if Apple got in first on this scenario? What if Apple add ATS to OS X? What if Leopard supports ATS?

Apple is rapidly positioning themselves to be able to implement this and take advantage quicker than anyone else particularly because of the ground being taken by the iPod in the entertainment industry.

And then who knows, as well as Media Center computers, maybe Apple will be king of hill in home based thin-client computing. Because maybe that’s what they’re planning.


  • Well well thought out, yet it is of course - so simple that one wonders why we don’t have it yet. I guess it is all a matter of bandwidth.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 371
  • An interesting theory, though of course a far stretch. Anyway, for more power-users the TS could be a PowerMac in a closet (or an Xserve, for that matter) capable of driving several thin clients including what used to be computers and TVs, streaming music to the stereo and so on. Another thin client could be a stripped down iMac. And this opens new directions for rumored AirportEx A/V, Media I/O Box, etc.

    As is clear, we are now getting closer to a home automation system, which with future technology could be managed from a regular Mac or PC.

    The problems, IMO, that any company intending to carry out this product plan would face, are:

    1. The need to develop a new, huge product line exclusively based on a technology many users may not understand or feel capable of managing. The besto solution would be to create as little specific products as necessary, sticking to modified versions of those already in production, such as driveless Minis, or bare-bones iMacs.

    2. Similarly, this would require users to buy lots of new hardware. A user would either have to replace all of the house’s computers simultaneously or buy an expensive jut for one computer. While it may be just as expensive or less than buying new computers every now and then, it could give the impression of being expensive to the end user.

    martunibo had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 37
  • New powerbooks and PowerMacs on the Apple site! Dual core PMs, nothing substantial so far on the PB side.

    martunibo had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 37
  • Chris, did you look at mobile accounts. It may be the missing link you are looking for. Think that was introduced in Panther server. May not be exactly the same but not much of a Stretch.

    Bandwidth could be a problem, probably not as much on a small home network.

    I agree one major hurdle would be making it easy enough to manage for the non-techie. Then convincing them that they can do it. It’s something you would think is Apple could do.

    If the server doesn’t break the bank and the clients are reasonably priced then you could have a “family plan” type marketing strategy. Make sure you thank your local cell phone company for preparing the market. Buy a server and client, Add a client for $xx. This against the back drop of the cost of individual pc’s maybe. There are a few different ways to look at it.

    Wundryn had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 10
  • I’ve never had bandwidth issues streaming DVD-quality MPEG-2 video over 802.11g to EyeHome, even with a crippled signal.  With DTS audio I think the maximum bitrate would be ~6Mbps.

    sjk had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 112
  • Oh, I guess you were saying bandwidth could be a concern for wireless “thin client” computing in general, not just a/v streaming.  I agree.

    sjk had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 112
  • I think that you have raised some good points.

    However, I believe that a good number of these can be handled by the proper use of a netbooted machine. 

    Each user gets their own account, or just use the standard account that is linked to the media.  Then each user could have his/her own music databases, video databases, etc.

    About the only thing that you can’t currently do with this scenario is netboot via wireless.  I’ve been waiting for this to come down from Apple for years, as it should be absolutely essential for any kind of tablet device that they might ever release.

    The wonderful thing about a netboot environment is that “reloading” the machine is usually as easy as restarting.  Netboot is already included in OS X Server, and I’m really surprised that Apple has not leveraged it more in their enterprise offerings.

    So a decent server could be an older G4, and a few clients could be Mac Minis with the local drives simply used as local storage, booting from the server based disk image.  If they all use the same login, they can all simultaneously use the same media libraries.  Sounds pretty good to me.  I’d much prefer it over the Windows based system that I’m using now.

    Caffiend had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Not everybody has a family, there are many singles that would love an all in one media center that takes up less space then the typical TV, DVD, computer, monitor, etc. Or for the family whom has a travelling member, “come and say hi to Mom/Dad kiddies on the video chat.”

    SaddlerB had this to say on Oct 19, 2005 Posts: 11
  • I suspect that Front Row is just the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent—an indication, no, more of a teaser, of what is to come. Here’s a scenario:

    You and your friends/family sit down in your living room and you pick up the simple Apple remote. Push one button and your 50-inch plasma TV turns on and shows the Front Row interface, which now includes cable/satellite TV and AM/FM radio. You pick an option, like “Watch TV,” “Listen to Music,” “Play DVD,” “Listen to Radio,” “Display photos.” You get another screen that lets you pick a channel, song, previously recorded TV show (did I mention that the Mac includes a DVR?), whatever. One button, and you’re enjoying the entertainment of your choice.

    The phone rings—you hear a soft alert from your home theater speakers. You push one button and pick up a Bluetooth headset or use the built-in microphone and the home theater speakers. The music, DVD or TV show (live or recorded) pauses, unless you want your guests/family to not be disturbed: then, the phone call just uses the headset.

    You get another soft alert sound, maybe an icon in the corner of the screen—someone wants to chat on AV. If you want to take the call, push a button and a small iChat AV window opens up in a corner of the TV. (It could take the whole screen, if you choose, or be like PIP.) The iSight next to the TV pans to point toward the Bluetooth headset. You can chat while the others watch the video, listen to music, etc. If you want more privacy, just flip up the 9-inch LCD screen attached to your Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad and the chat image appears there and disappears from the TV screen.

    One of your guests asks a trivia question about the movie or TV show. Push a button, the movie/TV show pauses and you go back to Front Row. Cycle over to the “Web” function and you’re immediately in a browser. Use the Bluetooth keyboard to search for the answer via Google. When you’re finished arguing about the answer, push a key and you’re back to the movie.

    A bit later, a critical email or fax that you’ve been waiting for comes in. The system gently tells you it’s arrived. Again, one button goes to Email or Fax, whether on the TV screen or your miniature LCD, or, it could play a voice/video message.

    The movie/TV show is over and some folks want to play a video game. Back to Front Row, choose the Game function and it connects to your PS2, xBox, or whatever is current. Each player picks up a wireless controller and you go out and hunt the bad guys, accompanied by 5.1 (or better) audio.

    This can go on and on, of course. There’s no reason that a Mac couldn’t do all these functions—and do them well. The DVD player and DVR would be built in. The music, photo, and video libraries might be on a server in another room (the thin client concept) and streamed when required. The Mac could drive a USB 2 IR emitter that is placed in front of your components (receiver, cable box, even a DVD player/recorder) and controls them. (The Harmony Remotes, now from Logitech, already do this: you specify your components and how they are connected on their website and it programs the remote. Push one button to Watch TV, Watch DVD, Listen to Music, etc.) Eventually, those controls might be via Bluetooth, as well.

    gslusher had this to say on Oct 22, 2005 Posts: 4
  • Oh, yeah, a bit more:

    When you’re listening to music, the plasma TV screen could be showing an iTunes Visualizer, a slideshow of your photos or other images, a screensaver, etc. The system could be set to turn the screen on when someone walks into the room. It could also control the room lights, the environmental control system, etc. Walk into the room and the lights come on, the screen comes to life, and the A/C quietly starts up. Choose “Watch DVD” and the lights are dimmed. Go out to the kitchen or bathroom and hit one switch/button and the lights turn off, the screen goes dark, and the movie/TV show pauses. If you’re listening to music, the music gets streamed to speakers in other rooms.

    You could put one of these Macs and a 23-inch LCD TV monitor in your kids’ rooms, where they would have access to the famiy music, photo and video libaries (and have their own libraries) and chat with their friends (Photo Booth was designed for kids—several middle school kids I know are going ape over it!), surf the Web, play games, etc. Another Mac and screen would be in your bedroom. In your office, you’d have another Mac, maybe a Dual-core PowerMac, to do serious work, but also able to tap into the music and video library on the server.

    In the server’s spare time, it monitors the house—alarm system, environmental control (could control blinds and drapes), refrigerator, washing machine and dryer, and on and on. It could connect to a blood pressure machine or blood sugar monitor and collect and send that data to your doctor’s office; order prescription refills from the pharamacy,; check on movies, theater, concerts, sports events, festivals, and the like going on locally and buy tickets to them; and on and on. Oh, and another thing: it has built-in voice control. You’re standing at the sink, washing dishes (you gotta have something to do!), and you ask, “Computer, what’s playing tonight?” It knows your preferences and comes back with—via voice and screen: “CSI is on at 8 and that new Batman movie you wanted to see is available on HBO. By the way, you have an appointment tomorrow at 10:30 with your dentist and Jessica has a soccer game at 4 PM.”

    See what a little thing like Front Row might lead to?

    gslusher had this to say on Oct 22, 2005 Posts: 4
  • gslusher, thanks for your excellent vision of the future - not so distant either. I totally agree - Apple are really well placed now to become the leader in that sort of scenario.

    This article has elicited some great responses and ideas. The mobile accounts and netboot ideas are worth a bit more investigation - maybe it’s a good excuse for me to pick up an old Mac and put OS X server on it. smile

    Chris Howard had this to say on Oct 22, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • Since nobody has mentioned this, I assume I’ll be grossly off-base, but,  How is Apple Remote Desktop different from your sought-after Apple Terminal Server?

    Bianco had this to say on Dec 07, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Bianco, fair question, but way different. Remote Desktop lets you remotely control another Mac. Even if multiple people could remotely control the same Mac, they would all see the same screen. They couldn’t work independently.

    On a Terminal Server, the server runs everyone’s programs, each user in their own memory space on the server. The end user has little more than a screen and keyboard (and a trimmed down computer that just maintains communication with the server), which shows them their workspace.

    In a terminal server environment you can still remotely control another user’s session.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Dec 08, 2005 Posts: 1209
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