Finding Front Row's future

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In a previous blog entry, I wrote, “I really, really want to love Front Row. But there’s more to be done before it can start living up to its potential.”

The first step in making Front Row better is to deal with its bugs and most obvious shortcomings. For example, although Front Row’s Music menu gives you the iPod-style option to shuffle your entire music library, there’s no way to shuffle songs within a playlist, artist or, album. (I still don’t understand why Apple would essentially replicate the iPod’s interface in Front Row without including that device’s most useful settings. In my mind, that should be Job #1 when it comes to updating Front Row.)

The first version of Front Row also didn’t honor most your iPhoto slide-show settings, making the viewing of photos a maddeningly random experience. The latest version of Front Row fixes this problem, but only for slideshows resident on that Mac. The bug persists in slideshows streamed over the network from other Macs. And there’s no good way to use Front Row to arbitrarily browse your photo collection — it’s slide shows or nothing.

Video playback is another area that’s fraught with difficulties. Front Row is inconsistent at bookmarking videos, so if you stop a video mid-stream and come back to it later, you may find yourself having to fast-forward back to where you were. Playing back movie trailers from Apple’s web site can be unreliable. The list goes on.

But let’s move beyond the obvious fixes and additions to Front Row, and talk about where it should go next.

Right now, Front Row is a very simple product, and I say that as a compliment. Apple takes great pride in honing products down to their most basic functions, and the people who buy their products appreciate that. But Front Row needs to grow to be more functional and flexible, without sacrificing too much of its basic simplicity.

The biggest complaint I hear from people critical of Front Row is that it isn’t a TiVo — that you can’t plug in a TV tuner and record TV shows via Front Row. I actually think Apple was right not to build that functionality into Front Row… but the complaints from those critics point to what Front Row does need more than anything else: a plug-in system that invites software and hardware developers into the party.

If Front Row supported plug-ins, then companies such as Elgato (the makers of the EyeTV video-recording hardware and software) could integrate their products into Front Row. Then if you wanted to record TV shows on your Mac, you could do it — but if you didn’t, that feature would never get in your way.

Apple also needs to integrate the iTunes store into Front Row. I’d love to be able to sit on my couch and browse through today’s top 10 songs and albums, play 30-second previews, and even purchase those songs right from my Apple Remote. And I don’t just want to use Front Row to play back videos I’ve already downloaded — I want to search for new videos, preview them, and buy them. (Or better yet, subscribe to them using iTunes’ clever new Multi-Pass and Season Pass features.)

I spent several hours this weekend attaching a Core Duo Mac mini to the TV set and stereo in my living room, so I’m sure I’ll have more to say about using the Mac mini as an entertainment device in a little while. In the meantime, though, what are your wishes for Front Row, the Mac mini, and Apple’s home-entertainment strategy? Let me know in the comments thread attached to this blog post.

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