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Apple Hits The Living Room

After the runaway success of its iTunes music software and iPod music player, Apple Computer has added a new gadget to its digital music kit — the Airport Express, a wireless networking device aimed at turning your living room into a “digital entertainment den.”

The $129 device plugs in any power outlet and allows PC or Mac users with existing home Wi-Fi networks to stream music from their iTunes library through their stereo. It can also serve as a base station for a home Wi-Fi network, or extend the reach of an existing one.

But the Airport Express isn’t quite as user-friendly as you might expect from Apple. It lacks both a user interface and a remote, so volume, song order and other variables can be adjusted only on the computer — an inconvenience if the computer and the stereo are in different rooms.

Apple isn’t the first company to offer networking solutions for the living room. In 2003, RealNetworks’ Rhapsody integrated Intel’s “Universal Plug and Play” networking standard into its software. As a result, companies like Linksys, Netgear, SMC Networks, GoVideo and Rockford rolled out “Rhapsody-ready” set-top boxes, allowing users with a wireless network to stream music files from their Rhapsody library into their home entertainment systems. In contrast to Airport Express, these devices have user interfaces and remote controls.

There have been other headline-grabbing news about Apple in the last couple of weeks, such as slashing the price of iPods by $100 and allying with Motorola to create the de facto standard of portable music. But its latest networking device has simply failed to live up to Apple’s legacy as an innovation leader.

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