Such a device did debut at this week's Macworld Expo, but it didn't come from Apple. One had to walk well past the massive Apple booth, past even the massage chairs and a memory reseller, to find the new gadget, which is dubbed the HomePod wireless stereo.
The $200 HomePod, expected to hit the market in March, was developed by a three-person start-up called Gloolabs and will be sold by Macsense, a maker of networking gear and other Mac hardware. The two companies were showing the device at Macworld from a small booth near the doors at the back of the main hall. Despite the off-the-beaten-path location, the company drew pretty good crowds, including a number of Apple employees.
The device, which resembles a wireless base station with a couple of added buttons and a small LCD (liquid-crystal display) screen, uses a built-in wireless networking technology called Wi-Fi to connect to a wireless-equipped Macintosh or PC. A small Java program on the computer scours the PC or Mac for music and sends that information to the HomePod. The device can even receive playlists created with iTunes digital music software. The HomePod downloads songs one at a time and plays them either through a stereo or by connecting directly to speakers. The back of the HomePod has a FireWire port, allowing it to connect directly to a hard drive, and, perhaps at some point, to Apple's iPod digital music player.
The design that Macsense is showing is neither aesthetically beautiful nor a wonder of technology, but it does fulfill a long-held desire of computer users to play music stored on their PC in one room on a stereo in another room.
"It's a very clear problem," said David Arfin, CEO of Gloolabs. "There are 60 million people who have music (stored) on hard disks. Most of those people have stereos."
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In fact, one of the biggest worries of the Gloolabs staff was that Apple would preempt the HomePod's debut with its own digital device.
"There was a little nervousness," said Ed Sesek, Gloolab's chief technology officer. "We've been thinking that people should have done this for a couple of years."
The company's three employees sat anxiously through Apple CEO Steve Jobs'speech Tuesday, hoping that there would still be a market for their device once the Apple chief finished pulling rabbits from his iHat.
A musical Rendezvous
Chris Bourdon, an Apple product marketing manager, said that in the not-too-distant future, the capabilities of the HomePod will be built into stereos. Using Apple's Rendezvous technology, such devices should also be able to automatically find music over a network, instead of requiring new software to be installed on each device where music is stored. Consumer electronics maker Philips Electronics has already signed on to use Rendezvous, and a number of other consumer electronics firms have shown interest, said Richard Kerris, Apple's senior director of worldwide developer relations.
For now, though, products like the HomePod can serve as a bridge for those who already have music stored on their PC or Mac and don't want to buy a whole new stereo. TiVo, for example, is offering similar functionality to the HomePod, as well as the ability to view photos stored on a PC or Mac through a television. TiVo is using Rendezvous to help discover what digital content is located within a home network.
The key advantage of Rendezvous, Bourdon said, is that it can find the content automatically, instead of having to be specially configured.
"The non-configuration aspect of Rendezvous is really critical," Bourdon said.
Sesek said his company expects to encounter competition from much larger companies, but hopes to carve a niche for itself by continuing into new areas and by opening its design up to developers. Gloolabs already has its sights set on adding video capabilities, allowing a television to grab movies stored on a computer.
The company is counting on Macsense to sell the device at retailers, ideally at places like Fry's Electronics and CompUSA. Macsense was taking advance orders at Macworld, selling the device at $25 off its suggested $200 price.
"We plan demand to be pretty high," said Stephanie Tookes, a Macsense spokeswoman.