A Mac mini for the living room? Now things are really getting interesting...

Peter Burrows

OK, they've already been pretty interesting in Apple Land. There's the nearly thirty million iPods sold since 2001, the rewriting of the rules for tech retailing, the gains in PC market share, the new push into video. And let's not forget Apple's stock price--which has more than doubled so far this year.

And yet for all its success, Apple has only given hints of its plans for what may be its biggest opportunity of all: the digital living room. With almost every form of entertainment that doesn't require physical activity moving into the digital realm, there's a new $200 billion-plus digital media/consumer electronics industry taking shape. And no company has more of the requisite skills to succeed here than Apple--the industrial design expertise, the gut feel for consumers' desires, not to mention bonafides in hardware, software and content delivery. Yes, Microsoft is staking out valuable turf with its Xbox 360, as will Sony when it delivers the Playstation 3. But so far, at least, these are game machines that happen to do other things as well, such as playing DVDs or sharing digital pics. Should Apple put its mind to creating hardware and services for watching movies and playing music from the sofa, I doubt these consoles could match the consumer experience. (I'd call such a device an iTheatre, but that name has been taken by folks who are working on an open-source solution to this opportunity.)

If ThinkSecret is right, we'll get a better view of Apple's plans come Macworld. They're reporting that Apple will announce a Mac mini designed to be a digital hub, and possibly a PVR to boot. Equipped with "Front Row" and an iPod dock, it certainly sounds promising to this potential customer.

And it's all the more promising given Apple's great track record in recent years for refusing to release half-baked products. Almost all of its new offerings in the past half-decade--notably the iPod--have provided a standout consumer experience, and no Apple product has been booed off the market since the PowerMac G4 Cube in 2000. Of course, extending that record with a product for the living room is a massive challenge--in many ways far more complex than cranking out a new Mac, Powerbook or even a new kind of portable device. There are daunting user interface issues, content managment issues, home networking and storage issues. But if Jobs really has the product ThinkSecret describes--and if he is really ready to release it--chances are Apple will have lots of competitors scrambling to keep up.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.