An idea for Apple: An ultra low-cost ARM-based PC for the masses

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday February 9 @ 6:00 pm

Maybe it was due to the cold I’m currently struggling with, or a by-product of the medicine I’m taking for it, or it could just be my brain’s attempt to keep me sane while I power through exhaustion until my holiday in May – but last night I had the most peculiar, vivid and financially plausible technology dream ever.

Let me explain…..

I dreamt, in surprising detail, that Apple had launched an ultra low-cost desktop PC/media player called the iSocket (yes, the name is terrible, but stick with it), which had a striking resemblance to the company’s AirPort Expresspocket Wifi router.

However, instead of containing a Wifi router, the casing in fact contains a very small, basic but effective ARM-based PC, not unlike the one about to go on sale from the Raspberry Pi project. Only Apple’s one ran a complete version of iOS along with the Apple TV big screen media player interface, giving you all the capabilities of an Apple TV, but also the full iOS application set and the ability to buy and install additional apps like you would on an iPhone or iPod Touch does.

The iSocket featured a HDMI connector (with audio), 3.5mm audio out, two USB ports, an Ethernet port, an SD card slot and a mains plug. It also had built-in Wifi and on-board Bluetooth, should you prefer to connect a keyboard and mouse to it wirelessly. As previously mentioned the chassis was a slightly oversized version of the Airport Express, with the intention that you plug the device straight into the wall socket, keeping it neat and tidy, as well as keeping it compact and reducing the production cost by keeping everything on one very simple motherboard.

Ultimately, what we are talking about here is an Apple TV with some additional connectors, a different casing, and a full iPod Touch-style iOS build embedded, rather than the cut down media player version of iOS currently used in the Apple TV.

The most curious thing about the iSocket was the price. In the dream, Apple planned to sell this device for $1, working on the basis that the hiding it would take on the initial hardware sale would be more than clawed back through the combination of higher app and content sales. Or even content subscriptions…..

When I woke up this morning, I was so convinced of the detail and plausibility of the dream, I had to go and double-check that it wasn’t a real product that had been announced overnight by Apple and that I’d heard about on the radio or TV while sleeping.

Suffice to say the iSocket had not been launched by Apple, and neither had it launched any other $1 ultra-basic PC with a less stupid name than the one my lucid sleep-deprived brain conjured up.

But, it is a plausible device, and the $1 price tag isn’t completely mad either. With Apple’s gargantuan cash reserves, the company could afford to take a massive up-front hit to seed these devices globally, in order to achieve longer-term recurring revenues. However, whether it would fit Apple’s product strategy or be deemed too geeky for a company that is now firmly in the mainstream is unclear.

Apple’s interest in desktop computing has waned in recent years, as demonstrated by the slowing in development of its iMac, Mac Pro and Mac Mini products. You can’t blame the company – desktop PC sales are in decline globally. The big money and big interest right now is in portable devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, desktop computing is still a cost-effective starting point for the next generation of software developers to start (it’s where I started, writing software for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore Amiga and early Windows PCs). Also, desktop PC technology does make for a good media player platform – and internet-connected media players are growing in popularity thanks to ubiquitous broadband availability and the growth in online content delivery services such as iTunes, LoveFilm and Netflix.

Also, a low-cost, small and simple to deploy desktop computer wouldn’t hurt Apple’s market share in emerging economies where a £1,500 MacBook Pro or £600 Mac Mini just won’t fly in volume just yet, but a cheap and cheerful ARM-based iOS desktop mated to a cheap monitor or flat panel TV will, seeding interest and desire for bigger, more expensive Apple products in the future. Finally, a very cheap, discreet PC connected to a TV would be appealing to those put off by the complexity and cumbersome look and feel of Windows and MacOS laptops.

The guys working on the Raspberry Pi project have already demonstrated that you can build and sell – profitably – a decent spec ARM-based micro computer for about $25 (£17). On that basis, the likes of Apple could easily sell a similar device, running iOS or an embedded ARM-port of full MacOS X, as a loss-leader for $1. Such a device, due to its minimal on-board storage, would be heavily reliant on either external storage drives or Apple’s iCloud service for storage and file-sharing (another upsell opportunity), while the ability to access and purchase (or rent) content and apps from the iTunes Music and App Stores would generate suitable additional revenue to more than offset the initial loss on the hardware.

Contrary to the company’s current strategy, iOS apps are extremely well-suited to a TV/Living Room environment and are a more friendly way of delivering Internet-based services into a non-computing environment than a web browser on a big-screen TV.

Apple then gets to make massive inroads into the consumer PC space and complete the integration of Apple mobile devices within the home, but moreover, gets to move even more into the home media player space than it has achieved so far with the Apple TV devices.

Yes, there is all likelihood that Apple is going to launch a TV with all of the above integrated into it. But as we have seen with Freeview boxes, until people are ready to replace their TV, bring them along for the ride with an external box that does everything the integrated unit can do, rather than just the limited Apple TV feature set we have today.

In the meantime, as I mentioned earlier in this post, the first Raspberry Pi devices are set to go on sale very soon – I think they will be extremely interesting and disruptive devices. If I’m quick enough, I plan on purchasing a couple.

Until then, I’ll keep dreaming of the Apple iSocket, or at the very least, a price cut for the Mac Mini.

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