It’s 2005, The Apple BlackBox is here!

This is a fictional review of a product that does not yet exist. It contains a lot of whishes and guesswork…
Will it happen? If you know more than me, please do comment!

Apple has done it again. The new Apple BlackBox is just amazing. Finally they have released what we have all have been longing for — the essentials of a Powerbook stripped down to a sleek black box that fits in your palm. Not only have they realised our wildest dreams — they have realised them in a rather convincing way!

Slick Black

The Apple BlackBox is nothing more than a black box equipped with wireless Ethernet, wireless Firewire, Bluetooth, 3G, GSM, gigabit Ethernet, Firewire, USB, DVI-out and a charger port. It comes standard with an internal 150GB hard drive, 1.5GB RAM and a 2.5GHz G5 processor.
It runs Approx. 10 hours on a battery load, but it can run up to 30 hours depending on usage.

The BlackBox comes by default in slick black, but you can buy different skins from the Apple Store. Actually its sophisticated design reminds me of the good old days of NEXT.
There is also a standard carrying pocket announced which will even come in jeans fabric!
It’s running a full Mac OS X 2.1 and Apple has bundled some specially developed software with it.

“Ok, nice”, you say, “but how can I use this wonderful little thing at all? It only has a power button!”. Admitting that this is indeed a very controversial product that definitely represents a paradigm shift, I can still say my “beginners” user experience has been great so far.

The secret is in the software, the most important one dubbed iControl, which is really not much more than a driver layer for OS X that you will hardly notice. It is based upon a standard protocol for inter-device communication. Basically you can set up hardware/software to receive certain remote commands, give certain feedback and report errors.

Mucho Mobile

Maybe the simplest way of interfacing with the BlackBox is using a standard Apple Bluetooth keyboard, Bluetooth mouse and Cinema Display.
What’s very nice about this is that it forces you not to kill your back. With my Powerbook I could sit for hours in totally unsound positions!
This setup, even though perfect for office needs, doesn’t allow you to work on the field. For this Apple offers a number of possibilities.
Maybe the easiest way is to buy the Apple Mobility package, which consists of a nice foldable Bluetooth keyboard/mouse-pad and a 5″ (yes, 5!) hi-res screen. There is a carrying pocket for the keyboard/mouse/screen, which is almost in size to the one for the BlackBox, so you can easily pack it with you on a trip. The screen can also be docked on the top of the BlackBox, which is convenient.

There is a touch/pen version of the screen, which I haven’t been able to test myself, although sources reports it as being very powerful for webpad/PDA-style applications.
There is also a 12″ portable screen that can be bought separately.
This is however only one way of interfacing with the BlackBox — there are many other, more exotic ways of doing it.

A Swedish company has announced its support for the BlackBox in its smart Bluetooth keyboard. Basically it consists of two pieces of fabric you put around your hands that magically learn how you type (using neural net technologies). Sources say performance is almost up to par with standard keyboards.
Also a number of manufacturers make glasses and heads-up displays that work with the BlackBox. I have tried some and I have to say it is not all that bad as it was a couple of years back. I think it will be a more common sight in offices within a few years. There is even one manufacturer that makes Bluetooth dataglowes, with a neat piece of software that projects a small 3D-view of your hands in the bottom right of your screen. Now if only that could be combined with typing somehow — then I could finally go Cyperspace®!

iControl introduced

As an addition to the digital lifestyle product line, Apple has released a suit of small devices for basic needs called iControls.

There is a remote control for film/music/radio playback with which you can even browse titles on a mini screen.

There is a remote not unlike the ones bundled with video projectors featuring a small button cursor control, and a few assignable buttons. There are USB earphones with a small remote.
There is a Bluetooth headset which can voice-control iPhone (a simple phone-over-IP and GSM app by Apple) which didn’t really work properly for me, but I think it can be because I’m in Europe using American hardware/software. Nifty enough the BlackBox has built in vibration and even hifi-ring tones.
Can’t wait for the Telcos to offer true worldwide flat rate contracts though…


What’s nice about the iControls is that you can really configure them in any way you want, so you can use all of them for everything from presentations to games.
There are also a number of iControl-compatible phones and PDAs that do essentially the same thing. Basically when you hook up e.g. a phone, you get a list of controllable apps and their commands on your phone’s screen — the Apple Mail-app even let’s you view and send mail. One noteworthy thing is that the new Nokia 9510 phone has a DVI-in, which mean it can be used as a real screen for the BlackBox as well. Other PDA- and phone-manufacturers are following this initiative.
Also a number of manufacturers have announced their own iControl-devices ranging from “minimini” keyboards and SMS-style typing pads (with OS X-native T9-software) to portable Bluetooth speakers that display track titles and even “blinkenlights” that you can control from your BlackBox.
What’s nice about this standard is that many of the large companies are also developing other kinds of iControl-hosts, that will — thanks to the standard — be usable with iControls from Apple.

USB, Bluetooth, and firewire handles all sound input/output flawlessly. Recording can be done with e.g. a Bluetooth microphone. Some have complained to Apple for removing the analogue sound jacks for good, but I personally think it’s a step in the right direction to move DACs out of the computers and into speakers and the like. The sound quality improves, devices gets smaller and best of all — audio stays digital all the way.
In any case, the BlackBox plays not only MP3s and OGGs but also MP4s and DVDs (over e.g. the wireless firewire DVD-player from Apple) perfectly, and I think it makes the ever-so-nice iPod more or less obsolete (unless you need a very small device).

BlackBox monolith ad
From the Monolith ad. ® 2005 Apple Computer

Size matters

Actually, that is an important point made by Apple: suddenly this box makes a lot of other devices obsolete — but it spawns a multitude of new ones as well.
The only real downside is it’s size — and we all know size matters.
In this field competition is real hard. I, for one, wouldn’t mind carrying my BlackBox everyday, everywhere — but many of my friends still thinks it is nicer/cooler to carry phones the size of a thumb. It’s just that aside from the phone they need to carry their PDA, their iPod and their portable computer with them chargers for these devices and so on. And they need to sync things (ok, I admit products like iSync make it easier, but with the BlackBox you simply don’t have to deal with it.). Not to talk about all the separate user interfaces you need to learn and re-learn all the time.

I was never a PDA-fan and I admit I couldn’t do everything with my phone but since the BlackBox I have been turned…or well…the PDA has turned into something I like. Now I don’t feel it’s returning to the interfaces of the 90s whenever I want to update my calendar or send a message to somebody. Instead I get the glory of hardware accelerated aqua.

All in all, the BlackBox is a killer product — mainly because of its versatility.
I’m using it on a daily basis already — my Powerbook, Powermac and iPod are all on eBay — and I can just recommend you to start saving up!

  • Unsurpassed versatility / usability / simplicity / design
  • Potential replacement and unification of your old devices
  • Makes way for a true mobile office, a paradigm shift
  • Battery performance, greatly enhanced due to stripping of components
  • Expensive, especially if you want all the goodies.
  • Batteries, batteries for all my little gadgets…and their chargers. Luckily, Apple offers the Charger Hub, but for 3rd party devices it’s still a mess. We need better standards for powerplugs and chargers!
  • The BlackBox is on the border of being a PDA or a Phone or a Webpad, but it’s neither fully, so some people might find it uncomfortable for some uses (even though — being a pure enthusiast — I thinks it’s more something to get used to…).
  • Can be difficult to choose optimal ways of interfacing with the device