Today the world, tomorrow the stereo

The recently-announced Mac mini is damn close to my dream PC, for a Mac.

Which is surprising. I have a natural resistance to Apple's often cloying oversimplifications. The long-lived, obstreperous and completely illogical attitude towards the right mouse button—that most obvious of innovations; I would contend even more useful than the left mouse button—taints the company in my subconscious mind. That bite from the logo looks to me like a bald-faced admission of corporate obstinacy: "We know it's missing, but we don't care." Nonetheless I'm attracted to this little device because, like I said, it's spookily close to what I've been dreaming up as my ideal PC for the last couple months.

Apple promotional pic...Actually, it's not that spooky; it's pretty frickin' obvious, really. Some of the best work in technological standardisation in recent years (even if you include the subtle genius of XML) has been done in the area of device interfaces—USB, Bluetooth, 802.11 wireless, etc—and that's what this machine recognises. "Distinguish arbitrary 'hardware' into logical things", that's what the Mac mini is saying. "Visible silicon is *so* 20th century." You can almost hear the Cupertino valley girl drawl.

But it's right. The motherboard has reigned for too long. My qualm is only that it doesn't go far enough.

See, my ideal PC is only nominally a PC. Really, it's a glorified USB hub. Sure, it's got a CPU and a GPU and some RAM packed in there, but that's a given, take it for granted. What's far more interesting is that it's got oh, say, twelve USB 2.0 ports stacked up with adequate breathing space, staring at you hungrily. There'll be a VGA port, and a Firewire port. Throw in a Bluetooth receiver at the top just for fun. Oh, and a power button.

Once you get it home and plug it in, you can start feeding it logical devices—things that perform tasks for you. Begin with the generic: we'll get a display (called "monitors" in the 20th century) and pop it in the VGA port. Then we'll grab a general purpose storage device, which once upon a time techies called "hard drives", probably just because it amused them. Mouse, keyboard: plug 'em in if you want, but I'd just go wireless if I were you.

Feel free to press that power button now if you like.

Alright, now attach the DVD writer. If your hub didn't come with an infrared receiver built-in, plug one in now for the remote control—you're gonna need it. Your digital camera, your phone and your portable music player (assuming they are distinct entities) are all ready to become part of your PC when you need them to, but first we have to take care of the piece de resistance. A USB wireless adapter.

I have one of these now, and I love it. It's a tiny thing, unnecessarily purple, that looks like a normal pen drive. It's got a little LED that pulses green with soothing regularity. The wee neon light means that an intense dialogue, the contents of which I can remain happily oblivious, is taking place between it and the gateway in the living room.

And with that we are done with the wired devices enabled by USB; we are playing with the big boys of 802.11g now. Today this PC sends messages out to the world, TCP/IP stylee. Tomorrow, it'll transmit music to my stereo. Next week it'll broadcast movies (and probably television) to the telly. By next year, it'll be controlling the kettle. Now we're talking.

Get one of these devices, which really shouldn't cost more than half the retail price of a Mac mini, and you've got a completely scaleable PC. Buy two or more, and you've got a modular and fully integrated home network. Shuffle your storage device from hub to hub as it pleases you, if you even need to. Flick music from the lounge room to the kitchen with a right-click. It's the daisy chain and the gravy train.

It's also a burglar's paradise, of course, but there had to be be a downside. So, anyone want to build me one of these? I'm offering US$249.50, not a dime more.

Joseph | 12 Jan 2005

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