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Can Google Fix the Cable Box? 223

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the die-comcast-die-die-die dept.
theodp writes "In purchasing Motorola Mobility, Slate's Farhad Manjoo reports that Google will also come into possession of one the nation's biggest suppliers of set-top boxes. So, can Google work some of its do-no-evil magic on the loathsome cable box? Don't bet on it, says Manjoo. For one thing, there's no evidence that Google would be very good at remaking the set-top box (Google TV, anyone?). But even if Google managed to dramatically improve set-top boxes, it's doubtful that cable and satellite companies would buy in. First, they'd lose all those ridiculously lucrative cable-box rental fees. More importantly, they'd have to give up control of the main entertainment device in most homes, and with it the opportunity to slow or stymie competing sources for entertainment. After the merger, notes Manjoo, Google could get several billion dollars by selling off Motorola Mobility's set-top-box division — a much surer payday than taking on Big Cable."
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Can Google Fix the Cable Box?

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  • But ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @08:58AM (#37128390)
    But there is a lot of viewership demographic data to gather, and no one harvests ad data better than Google. They'll be able to offer an online ad that matches one that the view didn't switch away from last night while watching TV.
    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:08AM (#37128480) Journal
      The question, though, is whether the customers(ie. the cable companies that mass-buy STBs, not the end users) would see that as a desirable feature...

      Team Cable already knows who you are, because they bill you and run a coax line to your house, and may well prefer their own in-house collection, however inferior, to Google having a chance to improve its overall advertising prowess on "their consumers".
      • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:27AM (#37128668) Journal
        I'd imagine that Google would offer a couple of 'benefits'. They'd include a web browser with the set-top box and include your browser history as well as your TV-viewing habits to pick adverts. They'd offer the cable companies the same sort of deal that they provide to website owners: Google harvests the data, shows ads, and takes a percentage of the ad revenue. Most cable companies aren't in direct competition with each other - you generally don't have the choice of multiple cable companies in a single area - so they don't need to differentiate their offerings too much.
        • by tepples (727027) <{tepples} {at} {gmail.com}> on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:05AM (#37129146) Homepage Journal

          They'd include a web browser with the set-top box

          But do cable companies want video on demand over the Internet (such as YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Netflix should Netflix go along with this) to compete with the cable companies' own video on demand service? Because once the cable box integrates the equivalent of WebTV, people not interested in sports will learn what video is available over the Internet, and many will drop TV from their bundle to save a few bucks a month.

          Most cable companies aren't in direct competition with each other - you generally don't have the choice of multiple cable companies in a single area

          Where I live, I can get Xfinity TV and Internet from Comcast, DISH Network with Frontier Internet, or DirecTV with Frontier Internet.

      • by PatentMagus (1083289) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:00AM (#37129076)
        The FCC already has a ruling on this:
        http://www.fcc.gov/guides/digital-cable-compatibility-cablecard-ready-devices [fcc.gov]

        It's kinda like the way it was with telephones. People could own their own but it took literally over a decade before it really caught on. I know you could buy your own phone back in the late 1970's. However, the telcos were making pretty good money off rentals until at least the early 1990's. Lots of people just kept renting.

        On the other hand, those old phones were very well engineered and were meant to last decades. You could bludgeon someone with an old bell telephone and then use it to call an ambulance.
        • Yeah, phones would cost 100+ dollars in those days. About a week after that ruling, 25 Dollar phones appeared in the market, with in a year 10 dollar phones where widely available.

          None of the matched the durability of the telco phones...but was that kind of durability worth it? no.

          They also used to be responsibly for the complete line, including the physical line in your house.

    • Re:But ... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Lumpy (12016) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:54AM (#37128982) Homepage

      It is already gathered. At comcast in 2002 I was gathering data from the boxes for sales. we had better data than Nielsen.

      I can give you a breakdown of each box and what channel it was tuned to at that time reported every 5 minutes. it can report faster but that was the default of the boxes that comcast had deployed.

      I pulled all of it into a SQL database so the sales people had real time demos in 5 minute increments of the number of boxes watching each channel INCLUDING VOD views.

      This is not new. it has been going on for a while now.

    • by Tharsman (1364603) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:16AM (#37129320)

      Hmmm... had not thought of that. So far I been thinking this deal will blow up in Google's face, BUT they may be able to get something out of their cablebox business.

      Then again, cable companies can switch providers in a flash if they are not in agreement with any Google policy, they have proven time and time again they are bigger control freaks than Apple.

  • by demonlapin (527802) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:02AM (#37128434) Homepage Journal
    Can I have an HD version of my old ReplayTV? Fantastic interface, incredibly easy to use. Just add room-to-room streaming to make up for the loss of transferring every recording. (And I didn't even have the one that did automatic commercial skipping.)
  • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:04AM (#37128456)

    In Canada you can buy the same boxes or rent them. Some cable / satellite systems even have rent to own.

    And when you buy them there is no per box outlet / mirroring fees.

    But over hear in comcast land new software like tivo on the Motorola cable box does not make it out of the testing area.

    Stuff like E-sata is locked out (a few other cable systems have it turned on)

    Other cable systems have auto HD where they can tune to the hd channel when you enter the old SD number. Comcast has the half backed pop up the ask you to hit a button to go the HD channels (does not show up all the time)

    The new Xfinity Spectrum box with 4 tuners is in testing but right now in test you have 2 and half tuners working and no AnyRoom DVR right now.

    • Stuff like E-sata is locked out (a few other cable systems have it turned on)

      That is something I miss about Adelphia - they had the e-sata ports enabled. When I call Comcast about it the answer is invariably "it's in beta" - riiight. In other words, it's enbled in the Adelphia markets they acquired, but not on the the nodes running off the heads Comcast deployed.

      You would think they would enable it - instead of customers breaking DVRs to get upgrades, they can enable the e-sata ports and let the customer plug in larger hard drives. When I lived in an Adelphia town, I had a 1GB HDD attached to the DVR, which gave me five times the capacity the cable company delivers. It might sound like a ridiculous amount but when you consider how much disk space HD recordings take up, it really is not all that much space.

      Other cable systems have auto HD where they can tune to the hd channel when you enter the old SD number. Comcast has the half backed pop up the ask you to hit a button to go the HD channels (does not show up all the time)

      IMHO retaining SD channels is a good thing; you can stretch out capacity by recording SD rather than HD. Is there a difference in quality? There sure is. But honestly, I still think native HD is overrated. I'm still happy with upscaled DVD most of the time. I do buy Blu-Ray discs from time to time but even though the video quality is amazing, it does not impress me nearly as much as the upgrade from VHS (240-line-at-best-but-usually-smeared-and-bloomed resolution plus poorly-encoded Dolby Pro Logic) to DVD (480 lines of resolution with perfect color all the time plus Dolby Digital Surround, Dolby Digital Surround EX or DTS). Cable HD is generally over-compressed so you get MPEG blocking and color smearing, which decreases the apparent resolution, plus many cable providers only give you 720p, so you're looking at over-compressed 720p which may not look as good as DVD (480p) viewed at 1080p courtesy a high quality video scaler.

  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:13AM (#37128542) Homepage

    You come home, turn on the TV, and it'll ask you for your Gmail account.

  • by Grizzley9 (1407005) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:19AM (#37128598)

    More importantly, they'd have to give up control of the main entertainment device in most homes

    Interesting if true. I would have thought with Hulu and tons of other entertainment that cable's glory days were behind. I'd really like to know the % of homes that still have cable as I'm sure with the economy, many are considering other, cheaper alternatives.I know many that have ditched it in the past couple years and those that do have it, it's mainly b/c of ESPN/sports. At least around here, it is a non-trivial amount to add basic cable to your internet service, let alone any premium packages.

    • by cashman73 (855518) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:43AM (#37128836) Journal
      I think the latest figures still have cable penetration at > 90%. While the economy has shed a few, and others like myself have left by getting fed up with too many ads and an overall lack of quality, the exodus hasn't quite picked up enough steam to really make a dent in subscriber numbers. Plus, there's too many people that don't want to lose access to their favorite shows, and the stunts this summer that Netflix pulled by raising their rates 60%, combined with Fox putting their shows on Hulu after eight days, and "Syfy's" stunt of putting Eureka/Warehouse 13/Alphas up on Hulu at the end of the season – has a lot of people thinking twice about pulling the plug. I still think the days of traditional cable are numbered, and more will leave as quality goes out the window. But the "good ole boys" aren't going to go without a fight,...
      • by sjbe (173966) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @02:38PM (#37132740)

        I would have thought with Hulu and tons of other entertainment that cable's glory days were behind.

        As long as they own the wire coming into your house they are going to have a LOT of influence. Hulu is only as good as the internet connection it is attached to and only a relatively small percentage of the population has what I would consider enough bandwidth to really make it work. Furthermore they have lots of legal agreements with the various networks (content providers) as well as owning some networks of their own (Comcast) and have the ability (the legal right is still up in the air) to block or slow data coming down their pipes. There is no fundamental reason they can't have their own competing services to things like Hulu and Netflix.

        I think cable companies are going to have to actively respond to new technology developments but they aren't going anywhere for a long time to come. I know people who would sooner cut off their heat than stop paying for overpriced cable TV. I exaggerate slightly but only slightly...

  • by headhot (137860) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:22AM (#37128622) Homepage

    Google is deploying fiber to the home. I'm sure there will be a video offering, what else are they going to do with that bandwidth? So, why does google care what Comcast or Direct TV thinks? If they make a better box they can use it for themselves. If they find a better way to generate revenue with it, then maybe the other operators my take a look at it.

  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:27AM (#37128666) Journal

    Google could do some real evil and start adding onscreen ads, or just make ads clickable to go to an informational website while buffering the remainder of the show. If Google splits the click revenue with the cable cos, they would almost certainly go along.

  • by Zaphod-AVA (471116) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:27AM (#37128672)

    So called 'big cable' only has a future as internet providers. Broadcast media, the already anachronistic channel paradigm, and tiered services are all as doomed as Blockbuster.

  • by Eponymous Coward (6097) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:38AM (#37128798)

    I'm not sure Google can pull it off. They have the engineering talent, but I don't think they would be able to negotiate with the content creators or put an elegant face on their software and hardware.

    There are persistent rumors of Apple being interested in making a television and I think they could pull it off. They already have a bunch of deals with content people in place. They also have the ability to look at a market and see what could be rather than what is. They reshaped the music industry and cell phone industry and I think they could do the same for televisions, amplifiers, and all the other boxes surrounding my television. I would love it if they could do something about the mess of wires and confusing remotes that I have lying around. I bought a Logitech Harmony 1100 because I thought that might make things simpler, but it is a deeply flawed device and now I have another remote sitting beside my television.

  • by oliverk (82803) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @09:55AM (#37129002)

    Let's be really clear here for a moment that the cable companies are NEVER going to let Google implement what's possible or what the consumer desires in the way of a proper set top box. Don't you just implicitly expect things like Slingbox to just, y'know, work? Nope...impacts revenue. How about HBO GO? Hmm...no again, that's a problem from a demand forecasting perspective. The cable companies win today by limiting choices (options, bandwidth consumption, etc) and Google would invariably want to uncork that. Not going to happen. Oh, here's my other favorite: what happens when someone tricks out the API and gives the entire customer base free access to everything?

    The cable companies are the RIAA of the airwaves and will never tolerate this happen. Expect more of the same...unless Google intends to start laying their own fiber, too. Oh, wait...

  • SageTV (Score:5, Interesting)

    by GrumpyOldMan (140072) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:03AM (#37129124)

    Google bought a small company called SageTV a few months back. They were one of the only companies offering a "whole house" PVR solution via tiny thin-client media extenders running on multiple TVs, and PVR software running on PCs. They had an extensible UI, as well as a number of features (like local media file management) that cable company DVRs either don't do, or do very poorly.

    My guess is that they intend to apply the SageTV team to making cable boxes suck less; especially whole house solutions. Obviously they won't be using clients PCs as the server any longer, but a lot of the technology is applicable.

    • by jriskin (132491) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @01:06PM (#37131672) Homepage

      I'm another loyal SageTV user... I've been using it for close to 10 years and it's really nice. I never went crazy with the multi-tv setups, but paired with a Hauppauge HD-DVR i've been watching crystal clear HD on FIOS for years. It was disappointing when they basically sold it and shutdown the website. I highly doubt they'll put out anything as feature-rich as the original SageTV. It's not as 'cutesy' as Tivo but its easily better in a lot of ways. I can seamlessly watch DVR TV/LiveTV/Downloaded Content and streamed web content on the same box as well as watch any of that content on any computer or other TV in the house.

  • by misfit815 (875442) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:06AM (#37129154)

    We dropped our cable subscription a few months ago when they forced set-top boxes on us. We were already paying for something we hardly used, and the idea of adding even more electronics to our setup was distasteful. Our main home theater unit already has too many devices to list here, and two of the three other TV's are wall-mount with no reasonable place for a set-top box. I actually shopped around for satellite before realizing that every one of those providers force you to use their equipment as well. So now we have just basic OTA HDTV, yet get a lot of video from Netflix and a lot of other online sources.

    My only regret is live sports. I'm a fan of one particular sport that is carried on a cable sports channel, and has virtually no online availability.

  • by Twillerror (536681) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:20AM (#37129382) Homepage Journal

    The cable set top box wouldn't really stay in Google's control. The cable companies themselves have to drive them.

    Do you think they want Netflix running on your cable box that they subsidize?

    If Google can get some kind of profit sharing model with the cable companies when it comes to advertising then they will get some traction.

    Google also got into the whole ad scheduling space as well. This might give google the ability to insert local ads into youtube streams, which could be a decent revenue stream and really start getting way more customized ads into the streams.

    Cisco is the other big holder by buying scientific atlanta a while ago.If google started doing dumb things cable providers could plop back to their products.

  • by freeze128 (544774) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:33AM (#37129560)
    Can google fix the cable box? No.
  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:41AM (#37129718)

    They're already in my phone, PIM, and POOM data, I don't need them harvesting my viewing habits for the Feds and advertisers as well.

  • by Kamiza Ikioi (893310) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @10:50AM (#37129880) Homepage

    You can't fix cable without fixing the cable companies, not the box.

    • by DragonWriter (970822) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @11:45AM (#37130656)

      You can't fix cable without fixing the cable companies, not the box.

      Since cable went digital, all a cable company is is an ISP with a reasonably fat pipe to the home with an agreement with content providers to provide TV content that provides a set-top box to display that content on the TV.

      Google is -- with its Kansas City demonstration project -- becoming an ISP with a fat pipe to the home. With SageTV and Motorola acquisitions, its got both quality PVR software and an established STB business. They are missing only the agreement with cable providers to become a cable company, and one with an unusual degree of integration.

      And Cable TV wouldn't be the first market google entered simply because the incumbents in that market weren't doing things in the way that best served Google's interests, and Google thought they could make customers happier while at the same time reshaping the market to serve Google's interests better.

  • "Do-no-evil magic"? Citation bloody needed. Those days are past. Look at the Google+ names fuckery - stuff like blocking Hong Kong users from their email [google.com] because they don't think their names sound American enough. Even their own employees [livejournal.com]!

    You are not the customer, you are the product [blogspot.com]. Eric Schmidt stated it clearly [allthingsd.com] last year. Make no mistake: Google has decided it's finally time to cash in.

    This has abolished their goodwill in an instant. I'm seeing people seriously question Google for collaborative documents, for email, even for search. How much bad will do you have to be running up for people to think Bing might be a better idea?

    • by Lifyre (960576) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @11:26AM (#37130358)

      While I completely agree that Google has abandoned the "Do No Evil" policy a long time ago I am unconvinced that any other company put in the same position would act substantially different, or even that they should. Microsoft already does much of the same things Google does with the information that Bing brings them.

    • by 0123456 (636235) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @11:29AM (#37130400)

      How much bad will do you have to be running up for people to think Bing might be a better idea?

      I've found that Bing is much better than Google for technical searches because it just seems to search for what I actually asked it to search for and not search for words I didn't ask for which it thinks I might perhaps have meant to search for. Google search really sucks these days and I'm probably going to switch completely away from it soon. Every new 'upgrade' to their search seems to make it even worse.

      Oh yeah, and let's not forget stealing the up and down arrow keys from the scrollbar so now I can no longer use them to scroll quickly up and down the page and instead they scroll through search results one by one.

  • by glittermage (650813) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @11:08AM (#37130134)
    On 8/8/11 the new FCC rules on cable cards went into effect.

    See http://www.fcc.gov/guides/cablecard-know-your-rights [fcc.gov] for more information

    Open cable cards will hopefully set us free. If not, sic the bureaucrats on your cable company.
  • by Shoten (260439) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @11:24AM (#37130332)

    Farhad completely misses the opportunity. He sees only two worlds...a world where Google completely tries to change the whole paradigm of how cable service is provisioned and delivered, or just selling off the set-top division of Motorola Mobility. I agree with him that for Google to attempt to make the cable companies let people buy their own boxes is madness. I also think, however, that Google realizes this. Not only is there the history of the CableCard, but also the problems with support, the fact that cable companies would need to come up with a way to provision boxes not under their direct control, and so on. Competitors to Motorola in the space would have Google's lunch; Motorola's division is a major player, but if the cable companies no longer wish to buy their products or support them, that will disappear instantly.

    What is possible, however, is for Google to infuse their expertise into the box. To improve the user experience, to potentially make the boxes more interactive by leveraging Android as a set-top OS, to make them more green so that they not only use less power, but don't heat up the inside of our entertainment centers do damned much. Farhad starts out describing a plethora of shortcomings these devices have, but then fails to make the leap of realizing just how easy it would be to fix almost all of them, without having to replumb an entire industry. And even more to the point...if Google can make a much better cable box, they will get even more market share in the space.

  • by mounthood (993037) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @11:41AM (#37130584)

    Forget about what the cable companies want. If Google produces a device everyone wants they'll have no choice. They didn't want TiVo or any DVRs at first, or multiple TVs connected, or IPTV or any kind. Popularity will force their hand.

    Imagine if a $200 box made it realistic/simple/practical to make video phone calls, and the same box could surf the web, play games, show and record TV. Good hardware isn't the issue, it's good software with open and free SDKs. As long as they don't "beta" it to premature death (like Google TV) I don't see how Google could lose.

    The key for Google is ensuring open standards because they don't control the platform. With hardware in every home they could guarantee the long term viability of WebM, OpenGL ES, NaCl, HTML5 (esp. offline storage and 2D rendering).

  • by scharkalvin (72228) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @11:52AM (#37130764) Homepage

    My Motorola cable box died recently and the new one that Comcast supplied did NOT have the Motorola name brand on it. In fact it only has the name Xfinity on it. I wonder If Comcast has designed their own box and contracted to have it made for them. (but by WHO?)

  • by josepha48 (13953) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @12:14PM (#37131016) Journal
    The cable box is here to stay. Well at least for a while and Google should really be into that anyway. The Google tv was their attempt to get Google on tv's everywhere. If they have cable boxes too, that is another way to get that access to the tv. If we are lucky they will make smaller boxes and hopefully better. Who knows, maybe they will integrate it with the "cloud" somehow. Maybe integrate it with the cable internet and if you have cable internet and cable tv you can watch your cable shows anywhere on any device. Lots of speculation here, but Motorola was just sitting on its past success and the only thing good to come from Motorola has been some of it's upper end phones. It really needs someone to fix that company.
  • Cord Cutting has become fairly mainstream lately, probably more due to the economy than anything else but the trend started with people just tired if paying insanely high bills. Cable companies have enjoyed monopolies on internet in many areas since driving out local ISP's. Prices here were actually reasonable when there was competition but as speeds increased smaller companies didn't have any ability to compete. Prices in my area have gone up over 100% since I first had it installed 8 years ago. What was $69 for the deluxe package then is now almost $200. I dropped it down to internet and basic cable only, but their recent trick has been to raise the price of internet only so now I'm saving a whopping $18 over the "bundle" cost and yesterday it was announced that they are planning to drop "basic cable" within 5 years meaning everyone has to rent a box or cable card. IMHO this is desperation...they realize many people simply dont need cable tv anymore.

    In convincing my family to cut the cord I tracked channels watched for 3 months...out of the 400+ channels available we watched a grand total of 16 and none of those channels were in the top ten as far as per subscriber costs go. Cable wont adapt to ala carte programming willingly so the only way to convince them is to let them bleed customers...perhaps then they will realize that some money is better than no money. Being simply an internet conduit scares the crap out of the fat cats in the cable industry for too long they have been able to sponge money from pay per view, premium channels, forced bundles, etc and now that those are becoming unneeded there only recourse in their eyes is to go to extreme measures to make having "internet only" a bad deal. Luckily Google is moving here with their fiber network...once that happens I have vowed to never give my cable company another dime.

  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday August 18, 2011 @01:21PM (#37131888) Homepage

    S&P dropped their rating on Google stock from "buy" to "sell" after the Motorola acquisition, and knocked $200 off their one-year predicted price for Google stock. That's very unusual.

    Google's track record with hardware is not good. They were in the direct sales phone handset business for only a few months before they had to exit it. Customers insisted that the hardware work, and wanted customer service when it didn't. Google couldn't handle that. Their approach to the "Google Search Appliance" (Mini size) [google.com] is weird. There's no phone support for this rack-mounted enterprise device. If it breaks, they FedEx you a new one. After three years, the Google Search Appliance stops working [google.com] and you have to buy a new one. Really. That's Google's approach to enterprise support. That won't fly with Motorola's customer base.

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