Thursday, December 11, 2008

The perfect set-top box: it's about the pipes and the remote

What would the ideal set top box have in it?
It definitely needs tv, maybe games, and it has to connect to my existing downloaded content and the most importantly it needs the internet (a DVD player would be nice, too, in the short term).

#1 on the list is definitely television content. There is hardly a way for anyone to do without the content regularly delivered via the cableco. Most content can be had on demand, but the live events and news are always going to need to be streamed. The 'guide' that shows you what is on and when is probably the biggest advancement of content consumption since the tv was invented. And yet, the potential is so much higher.

What about a google search? Or relevant information about what I'm watching? What about bringing my fantasy team into a page on the guide that updates in real time while I watch football (it's been possible for at least 2 years)? What about the recipe being made on the cooking show I'm watching? Or the IMDB page for the movie I'm watching? Maybe overlay it on the screen. Yahoo is still working on tv widgets, which is the beginning of a solution.

The point is there is lots of secondary content relevant to what I'm watching on tv that would be great to have along side it. There are opportunities for ads in the guide, which might bring the gatekeeping cablecos along. The box could provide suggestions of what to watch (like TiVo) but from the full content library (Hulu, Netflix, etc), not just previously recorded programs.

Which gets me back to a point I've been making for a long time: cable cos suck. By making it so hard for people to hack their own set-top box together, they have limited innovation substantially. There's nothing about what I've suggested above that you couldn't already do on your pc. The hard part today is incorporating the tv, which the cable companies walled-in (CableCARD was a poor attempt to fix that).

The biggest problem with existing set-top boxes is that they can only have one cable input, compared to the cableco box that has two (so you can record one thing while watching something else). Any 3rd party set-top box you get you has to take the one output that would normally go to the TV and be in the middle, which eliminates the two source possibility. This has managed to get me to pay them $7 a month per box. TiVo charges $12 per month. I do believe that they have a better product and it would be worth paying more for, except that they can't get two sources if you have digital cable. Has a culture that used to buy VCRs and DVD players really abandoned the hardware model? I'm not that sure. So, why can't people continue to pay a portion of a monthly charge to the cable company with the rest going to a company like TiVo, who also gets to sell the hardware. I really think people would pay for a the right hardware with the right software (I still believe Boxee could be that software).

With Obama talking about national broadband, there is a chance we can cut the power of cablecos and make everyone get a richer experience. It's possible, we nationalized the highways once-but that's another post (hopefully coming soon, but requiring actual research).

So, how would you control the ideal box I've been describing which has tons of different features and configurations. With a touch screen remote (like the ipod touch-which I mentioned wanting to use as a remote way back when). But, the tv experience is often a lean-back experience, the tactile feel of a real remote makes browsing without looking away from the tv much easier. Well, you could do like the old palms and have people learn different gestures to do specific tasks, or a swipe across the screen could change modes. But that might not be ideal. I think I would want like 4-5 physical keys to switch to my favorite settings/modes and a home screen with everything else. But, that's a more tactical implementation discussion. I believe people would get past it or that you could solve the browsing issues by having a full keyboard as well.

The remote really is the key. You could get Picture-In-Picture with the remote as a screen with little speaker to keep an eye/ear on when the game comes back from commercial. It could be where you keep your fantasy scores (or otherwise replace the laptop on the coffee table). The finger flick of the iphone would be a good way to browse the program guide without bringing it up on the screen if desired.

The beauty of the touchscreen interface is that its a blank canvas so you can do anything with it. The question is whether we are over engineering this solution. I might be in this exercise, but I think we could all stand to get more from our tv experience.

How would you change it?

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