Sure, the iPad's fun. It's thin, it's addictive, it can handle a wide variety of apps and media files. There's only one problem: it still needs to sync to a PC.
If "magical" was the catchphrase most repeated at last year's iPad unveiling, "post-PC" was this year's equivalent for the iPad 2. I had hoped that, along with the iPad 2, Apple would find a way access media libraries wirelessly. They have, in a way, with iOS 4.3's new Home Sharing capability--but it needs a Mac or PC in order to operate. While some of these solutions could involve the cloud at some point, Apple already has a product in its arsenal that could admirably perform the job, with a few tweaks.
Yes, the Time Capsule.
In 2009, back when Home Sharing was first announced for Macs, I wondered why Apple didn't have a home media server-type box. Now that Home Sharing has extended to iOS devices with iOS 4.3, I still wonder the same thing.
Home Sharing is a great tool. I tried sharing my iTunes library, and the setup took seconds. I could access my songs through my iPod app on my iPhone--no wonky specialty app required. Home Sharing also supports videos. And yet, once again, you need a Mac or Windows PC running in order to access them.
Apple's NAS/router, Time Capsule, is already about three years old, although it's seen some modest upgrades. I bought the first generation one, a 500GB model, back in 2008. While it's compatible with Apple's Time Machine backup software and comes with an extra USB port for printing or adding an extra hard drive (and essentially acts as a decent wireless storage volume), it could be something a whole lot better--namely, a central server of media that, compared to other products on the market, would be a whole lot easier to use.
While my Time Capsule can technically host my ever-growing iTunes and photo libraries, I'd need an open computer nearby in order to enable Home Sharing or media streaming. While Time Capsule can be used on both Windows and Mac computers, it can't be used to directly serve media to an iPhone or a DLNA-equipped device like a PlayStation 3. This is why I bought a Synology DiskStation DS211j a few months ago--for my ever-expanding collection of family photos and home movies, and for my tens of thousands of music and movie files to reside.
The Synology server, however, is hardly user-friendly to set up. Mine took dedicated hours--no, days--to format, transfer data, and begin configuring. No everyday "non-techie" would feel comfortable with one. Even the names we give for this category of product (NAS, RAID, media server) are enough to make a casual user's eyes glaze over.
I've also used several variants of the Pogoplug, a far easier-to-use way to cloud-share files and music. It's also not perfect, and relies on access via a web browser of Pogoplug app.
Cloud storage, which might debut in some capacity with a revamped MobileMe, iOS 5, or a revamped iTunes sometime later this year, is a great idea, but can only go so far. Storage space is limited and subscription costs to cloud storage systems can get pricey--plus, uploading files can take forever. It's more likely that cloud support for media will operate more like streaming of "licenses" as opposed to uploading actual content. All it takes are a few cloud-based accidents to remind us that home backup is still important, too, especially when it comes to previous home movies.
I still believe that more than half of the appeal of a device like the iPad lies in the cloud--but, it needn't just be via remote servers. A personal cloud would be the best solution of all.
So, here's my wish list for a product I'd like to call Time Capsule AV.
- An A5, or at least A4 processor. In order to stream music and video without a computer as the mediator, this Time Capsule will need some low-powered processor inside. Apple has just the product in everything from iPods to the Apple TV. If a $99 Apple TV can have an A4, why not a slightly higher-priced Time Capsule?
- Home Sharing 2.0. Thanks to the iOS 4.3 update, iPhones, iPods and iPads can now stream shared music libraries. The only problem is, Home Sharing requires a computer to interface with. The solution: enable Home Sharing on the Time Capsule, too. Once the Time Capsule has a dedicated CPU (as stipulated above), it should be able to accommodate Home Sharing access from other devices without needing to have a PC/Mac running iTunes in the mix.
- Thunderbolt. Apple's got a fancy new high-speed I/O port, and transfers of large files could be a breeze. On my Synology DiskStation DS211j, a 60GB file transfer could take hours.
- Cloud sharing among all devices (or at least Apple ones). The thin MacBook Air, the storage-free Apple TV, iPhones, iPads: Apple's device landscape is begging for a centralized storage box. Time Capsule should function this way. Right now, it doesn't. While my Synology server can share files and stream music, its flexibility is also limited with iOS devices.
- Remote file management app. Anyone who uses Dropbox knows how great it is to have access to your files from anywhere you can get Internet access. Apple should offer free iOS, OS X, and Windows apps that let you access and manipulate the files on the Time Capsule, whether you're doing so from your own LAN--or on the Internet from halfway around the world.
- Lots of USB ports, or even a hard drive bay. The latter seems unlikely, but we'd take at least 3 USB ports for printer and multiple drive connectivity. We'd like to dream of 30-pin cable support for direct iDevice syncing, but we're not crazy.
- Easy remote access setup. Frankly, setting up port access on my Synology server is a huge pain. As a result, I don't access my files when away from the home. Devices like the Pogoplug are better, but a more integrated solution is the best idea.
- Airplay. Again, Apple's gone through the trouble of enabling a robust way of streaming audio and video between devices and to external speakers. A media-streaming Time Capsule would be a perfect fit.
- Low power consumption. Rather than keep a computer running all the time, a low-power NAS-type device is a far more green way of sharing files at home.
Where would this Time Capsule AV go? Exactly where my old Time Capsule sits. It could interact with the Apple TV, serve music to my iPad, and generally make life a lot easier than my assorted problematic boxes. Of course, I'm assuming Apple won't release such a product. But, if they do, I think I wouldn't be the only person who'd want to buy one.
For the average person, the home server landscape is a mess. So is the fragmented world of cloud storage. Apple does a good job at developing simple solutions to complicated technology. It seems like a good match to me.