An Update on the CableCARD Situation

The Clicker: CableCARD and OpenCable – Engadget – / Stephen Speicher is out with a very insightful piece over in his weekly column at Engadget today regarding the upcoming CableCARD technology. Speicher accurately points out recent developments that do not bode well for you the content consumer and especially you the HDTV content consumer.

This is one of the clearest overviews of the CableCARD problems to date.

Specifically Speicher points out that the two companies who should be strong advocates for CableCARD technology recently have had material events take place that may dilute their enthusiasm and passion as your CableCARD advocate. TiVo, now that they’ve signed a deal with Comcast, indeed may be less confrontational and insistent in their fight for the CableCARD — and Microsoft may have, shall we say, certain conflicts of interest.

As recently as January 18th of this year in a letter to the FCC TiVo was using fairly inflamatory language with regards to cable operators’ less than supportive enthusiasm for CableCARD technology.

Speicher poignantly asks the question, “assuming that TiVo (due to its new relationship with Comcast) stops being the staunch advocate for advances in CableCARD technology, who will fight for the consumer?”

The other company who might be a defender of your digital TV freedom could be Microsoft with their Media Center Edition platform. Speicher is quick to point out though that with recent deals Microsoft might also be less than eager to push for something that almost certainly would benefit their Media Center product at the expense of other significant business relationships.

In fact, according to Speicher,”in a recent letter to the FCC, Microsoft joined Comcast (never a good sign) in arguing that the ban on integrated set-top boxes be delayed. With Microsoft participating in so many different segments of the cable market (e.g. Comcast already runs Microsoft Foundation Edition software on many of its current boxes and Microsoft has signed deals with both SBC and Verizon regarding IPTV) it’s unclear whether Microsoft would be willing to rock the boat.”

Why should you care about this? Because the cable and satellite operators are intent on giving you less than the rich, full, complete and beautiful television experience that you deserve. Already Microsoft’s Foundation TV and DirecTV’s TiVo are viewed by some as “MCE lite” and “TiVo lite.” Comcast and DirecTV have stripped some of the most interesting and innovative features developed by Microsoft and TiVo and instead present you with watered down weaker offerings.

Where you could have a fully networked HDTV experience with things like portability, power, speed, expandability, customization and storage, instead the cable and satellite operators want you to have it their way. And by complicating the relationships with two companies who otherwise might be your advocate for the digital home, the CableCARD may indeed have been dealt a significant blow. I doubt you will see more letters coming from TiVo anytime in the near future calling their new kissing cousins, “monopolies,” as they described the cable operators in the above referenced previous letter to the FCC.

With the mandatory issuance of CableCARDs now pushed out to 2007, Speicher points out that, “by then, they’ll probably be on to something else” anyway.

Speicher provides some additional good insight into the the difficulties faced by stand alone HDTV DVR providers who need to get their devices “certified” as well.

Overall an excellent read — I highly recommend it — this is one of the better articles on the future of your TV that I’ve seen in a while.

Update: Stephen Speicher makes a correction to my post as it relates to the mandatory CableCARD issuance in 2007. “CableCards are currently mandatory (have been since July 1st). The July 2007 deadline is to ban new integrated set top boxes.”

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