Will media gateways be the next big thing in consumer electronics?
The new version of Apple's iMac has already stirred controversy. Some think the computer, which Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, unveiled on January 7th, is as revolutionary as the original Macintosh. Its adjustable flat screen, mounted on an arm, has led some to deride it as the "iLamp". But more important than its form is its function. Mr Jobs sees the machine as a "digital hub" for the home, connecting other devices such as video cameras and music players.
The new iMac and its software go some way towards realising this vision. The computer makes digital devices more useful. It lets consumers download lengthy home videos and turn them into shorter films, for instance, or copy their favourite songs to a digital music player.
This makes Apple a pioneer in a much-hyped area of consumer electronics. As the digital world grows, one device will become a "media gateway", connecting everything and distributing content around the home. But Apple is not alone: this week two other companies announced products with similar ambitions at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: Moxi Digital, a Silicon Valley start-up, and Microsoft.
Moxi brings together separate devices, including a digital jukebox and broadband modem. Its Media Center can feed up to four TV sets. Microsoft, for its part, presented two new technologies that extend its vision of the PC as the home's electronic nerve-centre.
Other firms, such as TiVo, Thomson Multimedia and Sony, are also working on versions of a media gateway. But it is far from clear that consumers will bite. So far, such "convergence" products have had only limited success. There is no pressing need for them, says Sean Baenen of Odyssey, a market-research firm. Only 3% of American households have all three of an online PC, a digital camera and a handheld computer.
Even if media gateways catch on, it is unlikely that Apple will benefit greatly. That is because its share of the PC market has fallen below 3%--something that neither the new iMac nor the firm's 27 new high-street stores is likely to change. Rather, Apple's best hope is to grow by selling the spokes that link to the digital hub, such as its iPod music player, released last October. Expect an exquisitely designed handheld called iWalk, or perhaps an iCam, to appear soon.