[HD] Theatre of the Absurd

I was talking with a couple of friends recently about high-definition television, and they were a little surprised to learn that I really haven’t done anything of substance with HDTV. I’m an early adopter of technology, but I still haven’t made the move to high-definition television.

Yes, I have one high-definition set at home, but it’s only there because its predecessor spewed actual flames and then refused to power up. But even this lone HD set operates in standard-definition mode 99+% of the time.

Here’s why this early adopter is still on the sidelines.

I’ve been a user of TiVo’s excellent DVR since the first Series 1 units shipped in 1999. Over time, new features have been added and new hardware has been released. The current standard-definition hardware that I’m using can archive recorded programs to DVD-R discs, and it’s also capable of transferring recorded programs from one unit to another within a network; this is useful if, for example, you’ve recorded a program on the TiVo upstairs and then later want to watch the show on the TV downstairs. Pretty basic stuff, and it actually works reasonably well.

In January 2005, I attended the Consumer Electronics Show, where I saw TiVo was getting ready to release what I’d finally been waiting for: a TiVo device that would act as a DVR for high-definition content! They had a working model on display, which could receive HD programming using the CableCARD standard. This was significant: just a few days earlier, on January 1, a mandate from the FCC had gone into effect. The rules were basically this: that cable companies were required to support devices using CableCARD, so it would be possible to decode and display HD content on any compatible device. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, plenty. CableCARD devices require certification from CableLabs. CableLabs is a “nonprofit research and development consortium” that is a membership organization for cable operators. Equipment manufacturers and service providers who don’t also happen to be cable companies can’t participate. It’s hard to imagine, I know, but it seems like this organization could also somehow slow down the deployment of technology.

January 2006 rolled around, and once again I went to CES. And once again TiVo demonstrated their fancy new Series3 CableCARD hardware. You know, the same hardware they demonstrated ONE YEAR PREVIOUSLY. The problem? The CableLabs certification process. I know it’s hard to imagine that getting certification for your equipment from a DIRECT COMPETITOR might be difficult, but apparently it was.

Just 21 short months after TiVo first demonstrated working hardware, CableLabs finally saw fit to bestow their blessing upon TiVo’s CableCARD hardware. At last! It would be possible to use the DVR capabilities I’d been enjoying since 1999 on high-definition hardware!

Well, sort of. In order to get the Series3 hardware working, it’s necessary to insert a CableCARD. In fact, there are two of them needed: one for each of the two tuners in the device. Just call up Cox (the cable company here), and they’ll be happy to (OK, at least willing to) schedule an installation appointment.

Wait. Appointment?

Yes. The CableCARDs are so precious, complicated, and delicate that only a Highly Trained Cable Company Technician Driving an Official Cable Company Truck can install them.

After all, it’s quite a complicated process. Not only does the card have to be inserted, but it’s also necessary to call the cable company and give them a code that is cleverly hidden ON THE MIDDLE OF THE TV SCREEN IN TWO-INCH-HIGH LETTERS in order to activate the card. Clearly this is beyond the capabilities of a mere mortal like me.

But, as I think about it, this process seems very similar to the installation process for a cable modem.

The key differences seem to be that (1) the cable modem doesn’t directly compete with another product that Cox would like to sell me and (2) that the end user is allowed to install the cable modem unassisted even though the process is a bit more complicated than lighting up a CableCARD.

A more cynical observer might suspect a linkage between these two clearly-unrelated facts, but not I. Cox wouldn’t find a bogus reason to burn a couple of gallons of gas and charge me sixty bucks for something I could easily do myself.

After all, Cox is My Friend in the Digital Age.

So, you can call the cable company, and they’ll send the technician out (between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and never) on a day of their choosing in order to insert the CableCARD. Even better news: if you’re installing two CableCARDs in a single device, it’s possible to get the same technician to install BOTH CARDS. And you’ll be able to take advantage of Cox’s special “two for the price of two” zero-percent discount deal for this service.

Even with this rather insulting service startup process, it was still tempting. After all, it’s TiVo in high-definition!

But not really. You see, even though it was late 2006, only the features of TiVo circa 1999 would be supported on the new hardware. The idea of recording something in one part of the house and watching it in another is Very Threatening in Some Unspecified Way. So CableLabs insisted that the home networking capabilities of the high-definition TiVo hardware be disabled. TiVo had to listen to them, since their boxes would be useless without the digital certificates that only CableLabs can provide them. That’s a very nice business you have there, TiVo. It would be such a shame if something were to happen to it.

This situation recently changed. After what I’m guessing was a lot of wrangling with CableLabs, TiVo finally won approval for its home networking implementation. So, in November 2007, barely 35 months after TiVo was first able to demonstrate working hardware, it became possible to move high-definition programming around from one TiVo box to another!

You know, just like we’ve been doing with standard-definition video on TiVo since, oh, mid-2003.

Excellent! Now perhaps it’s time to consider a high-definition television for the living room and a high-def TiVo to go along with it. Sure, it’s not possible to record things to DVD with a new system, but there are other ways to accomplish that–at least until the content industry succeeds in their ultimate goal, which I think is to get the death penalty applied to format-shifting. After all, if we format-shift, the terrorists win!

And now the cable industry is deploying “switched digital video,” or SDV.

This is cool technology; it’s basically multicast video. A given video stream will only be sent if at least one customer downstream of a switching point in the distribution network wants to receive it. That’s a great idea, and it allows a huge selection of content while remaining bandwidth-efficient.

Go, CableLabs! Perhaps I was wrong when I thought you were anti-competitive and anti-consumer!

What? You didn’t actually work with any consumer electronic manufacturers when you rolled out the SDV spec? So there’s no way to integrate existing equipment with SDV?

Isn’t this is in direct conflict with the rules the FCC rolled out in 2005 to prevent cable companies from continuing to abuse their customers? Oh yeah, that’s right! The FCC has been no match for the industry’s devious ways for years now. We don’t care because we don’t have to.

Besides, there’s a NEW AND IMPROVED specification for two-way communication that will let our hardware do the SDV dance with the cable company’s distribution equipment.

All we’ll need to do is purchase BRAND NEW HARDWARE, and the hardware manufacturers will have to agree to give the cable companies COMPLETE CONTROL over large portions of the devices’ user interfaces.

I can’t see what could possibly go wrong there, since the set-top box user interfaces are already a model of clarity and performance! Why try to improve on perfection?

Wait! Perhaps I’ve overreacted. There is some hope! The consumer electronics industry and the cable industry have agreed on a plan! A new “USB dongle” is coming, which will provide existing equipment (like the TiVo Series3 and TiVo HD) with the ability to select channels on a switched digital video system.

It’s coming, I’m told, in the second quarter of 2008. I presume it just needs CableLabs certification. And an installation visit. Perhaps two. After all, the two ends of the cable use VERY DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGIES. It would really be sort of foolish to trust that kind of complexity to just one person, don’t you think?

In seriousness: I’m not claiming that high-definition television programming and the ability to time-, format-, and/or space-shift it are intrinsic rights. But those abilities are valuable, and they’re something that we early adopters consider when making decisions about what to purchase and what to recommend to others. Flexibility matters.

The content owners and distributors can decide how much control they’d like to have over the distribution and use of their product. They have every right to make completely stupid decisions about these things if they’d like to.

The HD-TiVo-CableLabs-CableCARD debacle shows that it’s possible to do an absolutely excellent job of designing and deploying new systems that value security over all else. You know, trivial things like like usability, interoperability, and the ability to deploy interesting new technologies quickly.

I’ve basically been ready to make the jump to high-definition hardware for three years now. But I don’t really want to spend (a lot of) money in order to have less capability than I have right now. So, for now, I wait. And I suspect I’ll continue to wait until there’s some solid indication that the “SDV dongle” will actually be released. Yes, they said “second quarter 2008,” but do you see the words “HERE ON PLANET EARTH” anywhere at all on that press release? I didn’t think so. Prototypes might be available by June 87th. If we’re lucky.

Besides, perhaps this will give the content and electronics industries some time to work out the whole “Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD” debate that’s been going on for a while now.

A couple of free hints to the players involved:

The “circular firing squad” approach you’ve been taking so far when faced with a complicated problem is endlessly entertaining to watch. But it probably isn’t doing great things for business.

And the funny thing about us early adopters? We’re smarter than you think.

[30-Dec-2007: Thanks to Fred Kuhl for suggesting the perfect title for this post.]

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