Means, Motive & Opportunity: Apple Kills the Media Center PC

by Robin Harris on Friday, 15 September, 2006

Apple’s “sneak preview” of iTV raised questions for most folks: why announce now? Will people download video like they do audio? Will the other studios join up?

For me though, iTV answered a big question: is Apple porting ZFS to Mac OS X?

So I’m calling it: yes, Apple is porting the very cool ZFS to Mac with intent to kill the Media Center PC.

We do have some facts: Chris Emura, of Apple’s CoreOS group, expressed interest in porting ZFS to Mac OS X; we also know that the first developer’s release of the next version of Mac OS X, Leopard, is ZFS aware, which means someone, somewhere, is working with ZFS.

Still, Steve Jobs hasn’t stood in front of thousands of Mac faithful and said the magic words: “One last thing” to announce ZFS. Despite the solid evidence I’ve noted, there is no smoking gun. So this is a circumstantial case, and a very strong one, because billions of dollars are riding on this.

Regular viewers of Boston Legal or Perry Mason know that circumstantial cases are presented when conclusive evidence is missing. You demonstrate means, motive, and opportunity. Apple has all three, in spades.

Means: Can Apple Do It?
Easily. ZFS is an open source product from Sun Microsystems. Darwin, the Unix operating system at the core of OS X, is designed so different file systems may be plugged in. Unix, after all, began as a research tool and file systems are a continuing area of research.

More importantly, Apple has already ported one Sun open source product, the very cool DTrace and layered on some UI Mojo to make it sweeter. ZFS has lots of features that cry out for an intuitive user interface. Cheap snap shot copies: Time Machine. Creating RAID systems or restoring failed disks are others.

Opportunity: Does Apple Have Time To Do It?
You might think they have lots of time, because who cares when a replacement for HFS+ arrives? And you would be very wrong. Because once we understand the motive, we’ll see that Apple needs to get this done by early 2007: in time for iTV. A senior Unix developer estimated that porting ZFS from one OS to another would take at most a year. Full integration might take more time, but since when did all features ship Day One anyway?

Motive: Why Would Apple Care?
Motive has always been the real problem. Even other defenders of ZFS had to stretch for a reason. Journaled HFS+ isn’t perfect, but it is competitive with NTFS and the other common filesystems out there. My original thought was “here is this great free product so why wouldn’t you use it.”

Well, as others have noted, while plugging in a new file system isn’t that hard, there are a host of issues that also need investment, such as migration, case-sensitive file names and creating the front ends for all the cool things you can do with ZFS. Steve may not care much about plumbing but he is all over user experience. Migration in particular is difficult for home users who don’t have empty external hard drives.

Now We Know
The motive is now clear: HDTV content to feed iTV, the pre-announced Mac Mini look-alike due in early 2007. With HDMI to speak to HDTVs (and preserve DRM) this is an Airport Express for video. How does this impact storage?

Video Downloads: Big and Getting Bigger!
Here’s how. Imagine you’ve built the world’s largest and most successful online music store and sold billions of dollars of hardware to play that music. Each of those tracks cost $0.99 and is 3-5 MB each. People can easily back them and even if they have a few hundred, it is maybe a GB or two. Easy to back up on a few CDs or DVDs. And they are on your iPod anyway. So HFS+ burps on your music and other than yelling at an underpaid Apple tech support guy, what are you going to do? If it wasn’t backed up, whose fault is that?

Enter The Terabyte Media Collection
Now you want to build the world’s largest and most successful online video store, with DVD and HDTV quality content. You are a little ahead of the market, but that usually works out. You want people to buy movies as freely as they now do tracks. Yet there is the scale problem: movie files are 1000x the size of audio or photo files. Not only that, the studios don’t want you to back them up to DVD or anything else.

“Halfway Through T3 the Hard Drive Started Clicking?”
iTunes music is automatically backed up if you have an iPod. Movies aren’t. Movies are large – 1 to 2 GB today – and much larger with HDTV and DTS sound. If you want people to store and play movies digitally, both purchased and home video, they need safety and capacity. No disk tools. No RAID set-up. No volume management. Suddenly storage quality and ease of use becomes a critical success factor for a new billion dollar business.

ZFS Is The Answer
Steve Jobs has two questions. First, how can I sell more online content and equipment to play it? Second, how can I kick Microsoft’s butt? By solving the high-capacity storage problem for HDTV content way better than Microsoft can, he’s got a great answer to both questions. He’ll never utter “ZFS” to a starstruck MacWorld audience. But he will wheel out a half dozen features, like Time Machine, based on ZFS, that will instantly become must-haves for the home digital media center.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury
Apple Computer had the means, ZFS; motive, a big market; and opportunity to murder the Media PC. The state asks that you find Apple guilty in the first degree.

Update Turns out that HFS already has support for case-sensitive file names. It is in an extension called HFSX. For (way more) info check out this Apple Tech Note.

Comments Welcome, As Always

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

hmurchison September 15, 2006 at 2:16 pm

Robin

I think iTV will likely be the companion product for an iserver. I’m kind of viewing the iTV as simply a media extender for what is going to become the Apple strategy for Media centers. A Mothership/Satellite affair that will have us connecting a iLife infused storage box (hopefully running ZFS) to store our media and the iTV product will simply be the connecting device to multiple monitors in the home.

Hopefully the iTV product is extensible in some ways so that we can insure they are up to today’s networking technologies. I noticed that Jobs said 802.11 wireless networking is included. The mere fact that he did not mention whether it was “g” or “a” or even “n” leads me to beleive that we’re going to see changes there by MWSF 2007.

ZFS makes sense from a RAS and pricing standpoint. Why encumber the computer with a hardware controller when we’ll have 4-core Intel CPUs in our computers potentially by year end and certainly by mid 2007. Less components means cheaper pricing and more reliability. I’m all for that. ZFS would be an ideal way to accomplish said goals but we still need that storage product that ties it all together. Perhaps Apple should license the Zetera SoIP product and consider powerline networking options as well.

This revolution “will” be televised. HM out.

uadmin September 15, 2006 at 8:29 pm

Thanks for the link StorageMojo, though it would be nice you took my pape in context, I wasn’t comparing HFS+ to ZFS, but the way typical users store data. And why they would want to use ZFS.

You can find the rest of my comments at http://uadmin.blogspot.com/2006/09/hfs-journalized-vs-zfs.html

Robin Harris September 15, 2006 at 9:22 pm

H: it won’t take much to meet the needs of ZFS for storage. – more later

UAdmin: I understood the context of your comments – and I thought what you wrote was worth being seen by my audience. Yet when you are comparing various command lines for simplicity, you are illustrating my point: without a crass commercial motive, ZFS isn’t all that compelling.

Cheers,

Robin

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