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Dreams about a box


By Scott Bradner


The April 1st Fortune magazine has an article about the latest progress in an amazingly resilient idea: set-top boxes as money conduits from customers to providers.  I think the article was serious but, considering the issue date, I cannot be sure.


A set-top box is that small bundle of electronics that sits between the cable that comes into the house and your TV set.  It was designed to unscramble those extra cost channels so your TV can show them. (If one were to believe the spam I get about twice a day you can legally do this on your own but I'd suggest asking Comcast if it's OK first.)


For about as long as there have been set-top boxes cable TV companies have been trying to figure out how to use them to get customers to cheerfully pay more money.  Mostly this has focused on variants of video on demand.  Carefully avoiding learning from experience, the cable companies have run a number of trials of this type of service.  These trials culminated in the infamous Time Warner Orlando Full Service network, an all-singing, all-dancing, fully interactive entertainment and shopping extravaganza that had everything except for an understanding of the Internet and enough customers willing to quintuple their cable bills to make the trial a financial success.  In hindsight it never had a prayer of being any kind of success because Time Warner could not convincingly say why people in the trial, with the world at their fingertips and thousands of dollars with of electronic gadgets in their houses, still went down to the local video store to rent tapes.


What's different now?  Fortune does not really say, but clearly video buffering appliances like TiVo seem to have hit the public's fancy, and the article mentions similar devices that satellite companies are now selling.  But if the electronic VCR-like feature set of these cheap boxes satisfy much of what the customers want, as they seem to, what will generate the vast revenues that the cable and satellite companies have been predicting for years?


One thing that is consistent between the Orlando trial and the Fortune article: neither seems to understand the Internet.  The Internet is not changed for the better when gateways are installed between the user and the world.  Gateways by themselves are enough of an issue since they tend to limit  the flexibility of users to try new and innovative applications.  Gateways controlled by someone other than the user, as the set-top box providers assume will be the case, are a very good way to get your life boxed in for you rather than being able to soar.  I guess that letting me soar is not in the business interest of the providers, but it's in my interest.


disclaimer:  Although Harvard's job is to open boxed minds the University did not express an opinion on set-top boxes, the above is my own opinion.