WILDSTROM @ CES: TIME TO REDUCE SET TOP BOX CLUTTER

by Steve Wildstrom

I regularly read tech commentaries in which analysts predict the imminent demise of cable TV and cable-like services, which, they insist, are about to be replaced by content delivered over the Internet. And while there is an ever-growing quantity of quality video available online, it’s not about to displace traditional TV services before someone figures out a way to get that content easily and seamlessly onto big screen TVs.

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My video system is an extreme case that no one but a product reviewer would collect. In addition to my Motorola FiOS set top box, I have a Roku player, an Xbox 360, and Sony PlayStation 3, an Apple TV, and a Vudu player all connected to my display. While some of these devices are rarely used, the fact is that each of them offers at least one function not available on any other.

I don’t believe that traditional TV, broadcast, cable, or satellite, will ever go away until the small but critical amount of programming that people really want to watch in real time-—sports, news, key episodes of American Idol—-are streamed at the same time they are broadcast, and it will be a while before the Internet’s content distribution networks could meet the demand for streaming the Super Bowl or an American Idol final if not broadcast alternative were available.

Still, an increasing share of the video we consume is coming from Internet sources and it’s long past time that watching it got a lot easier. The issues all have to do with rights and business models, not technology. The logical set top box to deliver all the content is the FiOS unit. But Verizon wants me to subscribe to Showtime, not get my guilty pleasures of Weeds and The Tudors from Netflix. They want me to rent movies from FiOS On Demand, not Amazon or Vudu.

One way to reduce the proliferation of boxes is to build the capabilities directly into TVs, but this has problems too. For one thing, it simply transfers the burden of making content deals from the box makers to the set makers. The bigger issue is a disconnect between the lifetime of TV displays and the rapid rate of change in the industry. People keep displays for at least five years and often much longer, an eternity in this rapidly changing market. The ability to update software over the network eases the problem some. “Upgradable firmware can give you the latest and greatest,” says Arlo Rose, senior director of product design & architecture for Yahoo! Connected TV, which brings content to displays said in a conversation at CES. “We’ll continue to provide backward compatibility to the best of our ability.” That last bit is the catch: The chances are five years from now, the hardware was built into you display is going to look very tired, and may or may not be able to handle the latest IP content.

Another hope for fewer boxes is more comprehensive units, probably put together by someone with little or no skin in the game. No one is trying harder to fill this role than Boxee, which until now has been a software-only player that tries to capture as much Internet video content as possible and which, with some effort, you can get to run on an Apple TV.

Boxee is now moving into hardware. The Boxee Box, built by D-Link and powered by an NVIDIA Tegra 2 system-on-a-chip, is expected to hit the market in the second quarter for about $200. The unit demonstrated at CES was even able to show most Hulu content, though the popular video site has been in a running skirmish to keep its content off Boxee, most like at the behest of Hulu owners News Corp. and NBC Universal. At first, the Boxee Box might end up being one more box in my crowded video rack, but I hope it will help me start to eliminate the clutter.

Former BusinessWeek columnist Steve Wildstrom is serving as a guest blogger at CES for NVIDIA, for which he is receiving compensation. The opinions expressed in his posts are his own, and not necessarily shared by NVIDIA.