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STBs look for ray of hope

Posted: 09 Sep 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:STB  AppleTV  STB makers 

For STB makers the AppleTV offers a ray of hope as they look forward to a future where their product will be able to offer more services and will be given more respect and attention.

Apple Inc.'s Rs.4,622.91 ($99 )AppleTV was applauded as a dirt cheap deal. But for Ira Bahr, chief marketing officer for Dish Network, it was relatively expensive.

"Apple gives me hope someone will actually pay $99 [Rs.4,622.91] for an STB," Bahr commented, coming from the viewpoint of a company that has been locked in a price war with other satellite, cable and telco TV providers.

"I have customers calling in that want a DVR or an upgrade to high definition but are outraged if they have to pay for an STB," said Bahr in a keynote address at the Set-Top Box 2010 event.

"Today we are no more interesting [to consumers] than an electric or gas company—it's just not exciting anymore," said Bahr, noting Comcast now gives away Apple iPods to entice new users to take its service and STB.

Service providers like Dish are doing all they can to add pizzazz to their little black pizza boxes.

Dish is a partner in the GoogleTV initiative, aiming to deliver an Intel Atom-based STB this fall that plugs users into a new service more closely linked to the Web and Web-like search. And Dish's set-top maker Echostar acquired Sling Media to provide video to PCs and handsets as well as TVs—the three-screen nirvana the industry is now seeking.

Sounds like all the right moves. But the trouble is the days of cable and satellite TV networks are numbered. Something new is slowly being born.

David Grubb, chief technology officer for Motorola Home was right to dub this the Internet era in his conference keynote. Television will become one application for TVs that increasingly will be multi-function devices, he said.

This shift is bound to happen, but today's cable, satellite and telco TV providers and their vendors cannot truly embrace it. They are locked into Clayton Christensen's dilemma of trying to serve their existing networks and customers.

Plenty of so-called over-the-top boxes have emerged in the last few years trying to ride the new paradigm, but they have lacked clout and content. Roku's Anthony Wood claims he invented the field two years ago with his Rs.4,622.91 ($99 ) Netflix player that now comes in a standard definition version for as little as Rs.2,755.07 ($59).

These so-called buddy boxes are stuck in secondary roles as long as the majority of premium content is still locked into release windows on broadcast TV. Even Steve Jobs with all his Hollywood clout from Pixar had to content himself with an AppleTV box that would deliver only some select programmes from a handful of content owners the day after their broadcast release.

The fact is today's cable, satellite and telco TV networks still own the mainstream pipes to the consumer. Someday Joe Six-Pack will only need a good broadband connection and a TV-centric browser—likely with some new kind of remote control and search engine—to access any new or archived video you might imagine.

But 2010 sits in an awkward spot when the old networks still have plenty of life and the new Internet STBs still have plenty of problems.

Many have tried and failed to make Web pages optimised for 640x480 pixel screens look good on a 1,080-processive flat-panel TV. Junk drawers are full of novel keyboards and remotes for easily navigating the Net from the couch. And no one has yet delivered the browser-centric programme guide for the Web TV era

For its part, Hollywood is still clutching its content libraries and release windows in fear of a free-Internet future. It's high time Hollywood and set-top box makers stop flirting and get married. The Internet TV era is theirs for the taking if they can let go of their old attachments to yesterday's cable and satellite networks.

I suspect Apple has not delivered an iTV, in part because these technical and business problems are so difficult. It also has its hands full with other quite successful businesses.

There's lots of work to be done enabling Web-a-vision. This transition could take a decade. So for awhile, the old STB is stuck with its sad sack status of being the box that doesn't get any respect.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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