Apple takes back the copycat title

Apple cultists are gushing over Steve Jobs' latest Apple announcements. Browsing your music collection by album cover? A box that connects your home theater to your networked PC and plays music and movies? Someone better tell Steve it's all been done before, and better.

Apparently, every copy of Mac OS X comes with a Cognitive Dissonance add-in. This feature allows Mac cultists to loudly accuse Microsoft of ripping off features when it's convenient, and to blindly miss the ripoffs that go the other way.

Case in point: Yesterday's far-from-earthshattering Apple announcements.

Over at the Cult of Mac blog, Leander Kahney gushes over Apple's new Cover Flow interface, which allows you to browse your music collection using pictures of album covers.

Just as it's easy to see quickly what the jukebox has to offer, it's now easy to see what's been hiding in your ever-growing digital music collection.

As Jobs mentioned twice during his Tuesday presentation, a visual navigation scheme makes a big music collection much more accessible.

"It's a wonderful way to rediscover your music library," he said.

Huh. Anyone who owns a copy of Windows XP Media Center Edition or is using the Windows Vista beta doesn't need to rediscover anything. Browsing by album cover has been part of the Media Center interface for four years. (See the Vista version for yourself here and here and here.) In fact, Media Center PCs support TV tuners that allow you to browse recorded TV using thumbnails as well.

And then there's iTV, which my colleague David Berlind is all ga-ga about.

iTV will have integrated wireless networking, USB, wired Ethernet, an High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), and the standard  component video and analog audio interfaces that any consumer video product is expected to have. Somewhat reminiscent of the the way Sonos' gear works with music, iTV can apparently take "delivery" of its content (eg: an iTMS purchased song) from an iTunes-enabled PC via the wired or wireless network and its FrontRow-esque 3D user interface can be controlled with a remote control (so, iTV is sort of a set-top box on steroids).

The iTV doesn't appear to have a tuner (not that it needs one). In my home setup, provided I wanted to use it, I'd just connect the iTV to the receiver  (more like a networking hub these days given all the sources connected to it) at the heart of my home entertainment setup in my family room. Or, you can connect it directly to a big flat panel.

So, let me get this straight. I can pay $300 for a device that allows me to play content from a computer located elsewhere in the house. Cool! It's about time someone invented a "media extender" like this.

Oh. Wait. Microsoft already did. I have three Media Center extenders in this house, two first-generation models and an Xbox 360. On any of these extenders, I can play my entire music collection (browsing it by album cover) through my home theater system using a wired or wireless connection to my Media Center computer. But unlike Apple's device (which won't be available until January 2007) the Xbox 360 also streams live or recorded TV and downloaded high-definition content. It plays games and DVDs in full 5.1 surround sound. And in January, when Vista ships, I'll be able to get a CableCARD-equipped Media Center that will stream HDTV programs over the network to my Xbox 360 with no extra charges.

So, will someone please tell me why I want to replace my Xbox 360 with an Apple-branded device that only plays tunes from one music store, allows me to pay $15 for a movie encoded at 640 by 480 that looks like crap on my widescreen HDTV, and is unable to record or stream TV programming?

It must take a lot of Kool-Aid to understand what a great deal that is.