With the new Apple TV, did Steve Jobs really just introduce a $99 Macintosh?

Summary:Does it have enough in common with the old Apple TV to do what the old Apple TV could do?

As you no doubt know by now, Steve Jobs did his one-more-thing thing and just introduced a $99, palm-sized Apple TV.

On the surface, the new Apple TV is disappointingly mundane. It seemed almost completely likely that the new Apple TV (what everyone was convinced would be called iTV) would be iOS-based and essentially give you a big-screen iPad with a 10-foot interface.

What Apple introduced instead was -- wait for it -- the Apple TV. Only less. Less features, as in no hard drive. Less money, as in $99 instead of $229.

For those of us who've had and used an Apple TV for all these years, there's nothing new here. Oh, sure, you can rent some TV shows for 99 cents, but only from some networks. Big whoop. Plus it'll play Netflix. Been there, Roku'd that. It's not exactly the game changer everyone (including yours truly) pretty much expected.

But here's where the new Apple TV gets interesting.

Apple has now introduced a cheap, $99 CPU that has a USB port, an HDMI port, an Ethernet jack, and optical audio. Like other cheapo $99 gadgets before it, the newly refreshed Apple TV is likely to be catnip for hackers.

The real question is this: how much does it share architecturally with the old Apple TV? If you're not aware, the Apple TV was essentially a half-height Mac Mini running a crippled version of Mac OS X that launched straight into Front Row.

This configuration made the Apple TV wonderfully hackable. The ATV Flash guys built a simple upgrade image that could be written onto a thumb drive and would open up the Apple TV to an SSH shell and tons more applications.

Then, in 2007, it happened. Someone managed to hack the Apple TV to run Mac OS X. Although there were certain weirdnesses in the Apple TV's architecture, hackers figured a way around it and soon the Apple TV-based Mac OS X computer was born.

So here we are in 2010. Apple's introduced a $99 box. What's inside? Does it have enough in common with the old Apple TV to, well, do what the old Apple TV could do?

Would it, in fact, be possible to run OS X on a little, tiny, $99 Apple TV? If so, then there you go. You've got your $99 Macintosh.

Obviously, this would likely be more curiosity than useful device, but it would be fun nonetheless. More to the point, like with other very cool, super-cheap computers, I have no doubt that this Apple TV will likely be one of the most hacked devices of 2010.

Update: Jason Perlow tells me the new Apple TV is based on a different processor than the old Apple TV, an A4 chip like the iPhone and iPad, rather than the Intel chips of yore. Still, we'll see. I wouldn't put it past Apple TV hackers to make this thing do interesting stuff.

If you were to hack this thing, what would you put on it? TalkBack below.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Mobility

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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