With all this talk about an Apple Front Projector, a set top box, and an iPod dock, it got me thinking about how Apple could really get the whole home entertainment thing integrated with the Mac. I figured the best way would be with a set top box, but with an important difference: How about actually making it something useful?
Imagine, if you will, an Airport-connecting, Rendezvous-enabled, iApp-integrated set top box.
Just plug it in, and hook it up to your TV (and other home theater equipment), and it will instantly connect to your Airport Extreme network (or to your ethernet network, for the wire-bound). Using Rendezvous, it searches out any Macs (and later, PCs) with appropriate iApps loaded, all with no user configuration required. Here's where the iApps come in:
iTunes: Accesses your iTunes library and playlists, letting you play your entire music collection on your big stereo, all without extra wires or clunky "Media Center PC" sitting right there. Plus, if desired, song information and iTunes visuals can play on your TV.
iPhoto: Accesses your iPhoto library and albums, and lets you show slideshows on your TV, with an iTunes-supplied soundtrack, of course. This would be a Mac only feature, unless Apple found a money-making reason to port iPhoto to Windows.
iFlick (or iShow, or iVid... or whatever): A new iApp, which would be a combination of iTunes for video, and a PVR. While watching TV, the set top box can simultaneously beam the video to your Mac, where it'll save it to your harddrive in Quicktime format. iFlick will, of course, manage and organize all your TV shows (and any other Quicktime videos you may have) in a Library and playlists/albums. There could also be an iTunes-like browse feature to search for shows by channel, date, or other meta data (like all your "Friends" episodes, or all movies starring a particular actor). iFlick would integrate with other iApps as well. iMovie could export your completed videos to your iFlick library, just like GarageBand exports to iTunes. Also, iFlick could send saved TV shows to either iMovie for editing (who wants those commercials, anyway?) or directly to iDVD. Plus, once broadband actually gets fast enough, and Apple sorts out an agreement with the Motion Picture Association, there could be an iFlick Movie Store... probably more of a rental store, but whatever. Of course, I shouldn't have to mention it, but iFlick could obviously send any stored videos back to your TV, through the set top box, for later viewing, and would provide all the playback features current PVR users are accustomed to.
iFlick would be a cross-platform iApp, just like iTunes, because it would help sell the set top box (just like iTunes sells the iPod). Plus, when the video store opens, you want a big customer base.
I don't think bandwidth should be a problem... I've never tried streaming video over Airport, but considering the resolution you can get over DSL/cable, and considering how much faster Airport Extreme is than that, there shouldn't be any problem. Plus, Apple wouldn't need to worry about supporting HiDef for a few years, and by then Airport super-duper-extreme will be around anyway.
Plus, cost could be fairly low. It's airport, a processor, and a bunch of memory. You probably wouldn't even need a hard drive, since the Mac is doing all the video recording anyway... unless you want a small one for buffering, and it turns out to be cheaper than extra RAM.
The set top box could all be controlled through an iPod-like interface, although with a very snazzed-up and Aqua-esque appearance. In fact, the remote would not likely need many more controls than those found on an actual iPod. You would basically select the computer from the auto-discovered list, then select the iApp (or more likely, the type of media you're looking for), and then browse the playlists and stuff. Apple could even skip the whole "select the computer" stage, and have the device list media from all connected computers in a blended, seamless list.
Do I actually think Apple will make such a box? Not likely. Should Apple make one? Well, it's another digital lifestyle device with potentially high margins. It integrates with and adds value to almost all of iLife. And it would get all those analysts off their backs for not having an answer to the Media Center PC (and yes, most analysts are bone heads, but they do affect Apple's stock price). Plus, of all the computer companies trying to get into the home entertainment business, only Apple has a clue when it comes to style.