Will Tru2way Open the Cable Box? Tune In Later...
I spent yesterday afternoon wandering around the Washington Convention Center looking in vain for one thing: a digital video recorder that you could buy in a store, then use with the cable service of your choice.
This unsuccessful search took place at the Cable Show, a convention organized by the Washington-based National Cable and Telecommunications Association. At this year's show, one of the headline attractions is a technology called tru2way.
Unlike earlier attempts at interoperable standards for cable reception -- the widely supported but severely limited QAM and its more capable but largely ignored sibling, the CableCard -- tru2way works with both regular channels and encrypted, premium fare like HBO. It also supports a cable operator's full range of interactive services, such as electronic program guides and video-on-demand services. And it should be available by the end of this year.
Its appeal should be obvious to anybody who's had to ante up $7, $10 or more every month for a cable box that takes up too much space below the TV, features a button-festooned remote control designed with minimal consideration of its usability, and uses too much electricity.
Put simply, you won't find a more fundamentally broken market anywhere in the electronics business because the people who use cable boxes aren't the ones who buy them. Only cable operators do that, and they don't have to deal with such problems as wasteful electrical consumption or ugly, awkward onscreen interfaces.
You can't count on the cable company to fix these problems in any sort of hurry, either. At the Cable Show, TiVo showed off the same Comcast-branded, TiVo-powered digital video recorder I saw demonstrated in the summer of 2007, but still couldn't say when it would be available to subscribers in the D.C. area because it's still in testing in the Boston market.
Tru2way could break the cable-box market wide open. But what I saw yesterday suggests that, at least for the first few years, it will only provide a slightly wider choice of boxes. Motorola, Panasonic and Echostar all showed off tru2way digital video recorders, some with interesting features. For example, the Echostar units included a built-in Slingbox for remote viewing. But each company's representatives said they only planned to sell these to cable operators, not individual customers.
Panasonic did display a pair of plasma televisions with tru2way tuners, each tuned into a live feed Comcast had switched on for the show. But they couldn't pause or record a cable broadcast.
At the back end of that company's small exhibit, however, I found a different sort of device -- a compact, cable-compatible, high-definition digital video recorder with an enormous hard drive that could also burn your recordings to a DVD or copy them to an SD memory card for offline viewing in other devices. This model, however, didn't feature a tru2way logo on the front. Its remote control didn't even feature English characters, because this recorder is sold only in Japan. There, Panasonic chief technology officer Paul Liao explained, the government brokered a different cable-reception standard.
That's the kind of device I'd like to see tru2way (or, better yet, a broader standard that also covered satellite reception) make possible. But it seems that I'd have to emigrate to buy such a thing. Suppose instead that you didn't have to move to buy the video recorder of your choice, and that you could choose from a wide range of products that would all work with the TV service of your choice. In that case, what features would you want to see on that video recorder?
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