Saturday, 17 May 2008

Think Ahead, Think iBase

This article is promted by the LowEndMac article in Beyond The Mac Mini. About 6 to 7 Years ago I added a page to my (then current) website: The Snial Homepage. I was toying with what Apple might do to produce an ultra-budget iMac based around wireless technologies. The basic idea is that it would be easier for Apple to get existing customers to buy more Macs and distribute them around for specific purposes than for Apple to expand their customer-base. To do this you'd make them really small (so they can be placed anywhere); cut down on absolutely everything and make up for it using the network and just enough USB/FireWire ports. So, the Macs would be capable, but only under the wing of a more powerful computer.

The result was the iBase. Although the performance of the iBase is poor (and was deliberately so even in 2001) Apple seems to be converging slowly on some of its ideas. Consider:

  • The use of low-end technology in the Mac mini, i.e. relatively slow CPUs.
  • The missing external drive in the MacBook Air.
  • The limited number of ports in the MacBook Air (even more limited than the iBase). In particular, like the iBase, the MacBook Air doesn't have Ethernet.
  • The similar solution for using removable media (e.g. Operating System upgrade) - by using a virtual drive from another computer over wireless.
  • The small laptop-style keyboard. The one shown in the image is actually a double-prediction. I took an image of a full-sized Black Apple keyboard from 2001; cut off the keypad and cursor pad keys and then inverted it. Apple's keyboards went white in 2002 and the smaller keyboard appeared in 2007 (although it's silver now).
  • The lack of expandability - even by Apple standards, iBase is restricted by only supporting a single RAM slot (the MacBook Air has its RAM soldered on!).
The iBase makes just as much sense now as it did 7 years ago, or more sense. The move towards cheap UMPCs, such as the popular eeePC says there's a healthy market for small screen computers. The increasing popularity of Linux (in particular, consumer oriented-versions) and Mac OS X means that internet media is more accessible - it's more cross platform. The move towards wireless networks and high-bandwidth internet (Broadband at 512KBit/s had only just come out when iBase was written) means that the traditional roles of DVDs and CDs are falling by the wayside in favour of technologies like Apple TV and the BBC iPlayer. Finally, cheap NAS technology means that computing at all levels is becoming more client-server based; more distributed; more prevalent and yet less obtrusive.

So, the iBase concept is more than just a small computer, it's more human-oriented technology: handy when you want it, but less invasive at the same time.