Agreement may mean extinction for cable set-top boxes

Sony Electronics and major cable operators which together pass over 105 million U.S. homes have negotiated and signed an agreement that will enable consumers to purchase “two-way” digital televisions and other devices that can receive interactive digital and high-definition video services without a set-top box, Sony and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) announced today. The terms of the agreement are embodied in a binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) negotiated by Sony Electronics and the six largest cable companies – Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Charter, Cablevision and Bright House Networks – which serve more than 82% of all U.S. cable subscribers.

Other consumer electronics companies will be beneficiaries of this new national two-way “plug-and-play” platform and have also been invited to formally join the MOU.

This negotiated industry agreement establishes the fundamentals for a competitive retail market for “two-way” digital cable-ready devices. It addresses how such products will be brought to market with interactive services like video-on-demand, digital video recording and interactive programming guides.

In addition, the agreement makes it clear that consumers will be able to enjoy a choice of differentiated two-way products at retail and through cable operators from a variety of consumer electronics and information technology manufacturers. The agreement includes safeguards to facilitate the development of a robust, two-way retail market and to ensure that cable operators can continue to develop and offer new competitive services.

Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA), a senior Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and one of the leading advocates in Congress for new technology and consumer freedoms said in a statement: “I congratulate Sony and the major cable operators for achieving consensus on a set of core principles that will speed the introduction of new two-way plug-and-play devices.” Representative Boucher added: “With this groundbreaking compromise, these industry-leading companies and other major cable companies will ensure that consumers will have broader access to innovative competitive cable ready navigation devices from commercial retailers and will have expanded options to enjoy cable programming, including video on demand and other interactive programming options.”

As part of the agreement, the parties will adopt: the Java-based “tru2way” solution as the national interactive “plug-and-play” standard; new streamlined technology licenses; and new ways for content providers, consumer electronics manufacturers, information technology companies and cable operators to cooperate in evolving the tru2way technology at Cable Television Laboratories (CableLabs), the cable industry’s research and development consortium.

The agreement will encourage the development and distribution of interactive and high-value digital content. Key elements of the agreement relate to the deployment of a platform for “write once, run anywhere” applications, and to the incorporation of secure digital interfaces that protect consumers’ home recording rights along with copyright owners’ rights to secure their digital content. Detailed terms of the MOU have not yet been released, while other potential signatories complete their review of the document.

“This marketplace agreement is good news for consumers,” said Edgar Tu, Sony Electronics’ Senior Vice President of TV Operations of America, in the press release. “A national plug-and-play digital cable standard for interactive TV receivers, recorders and other products that is transferable and viable wherever you live is ideal for today’s mobile society.”

“This is a landmark agreement which will provide a national, open and interactive platform resulting in more choices of services and products for consumers,” said Kyle McSlarrow, NCTA President & CEO, in the press release.

“We are pleased that this technical challenge has been addressed through a voluntary, private-sector solution,” said Consumer Electronics Association President and CEO Gary Shapiro, in the press release. “We look forward to working with our cable colleagues to ensure Americans across the country have access to high value cable content while using the equipment of their choosing.”

Source: NCTA

John P. Falcone reports for CNET, “Tru2way is designed from the ground up to be interactive, customizable (for the cable provider), and plug-and-play. Switched digital video, video-on-demand, pay-per-view, HD channels, dual-tuner support–it should all work without a hitch, and deliver an identical experience on your local cable system, no matter which Tru2way TV you’re buying.”

“There are plenty of other potential advantages as well. Tru2way TVs should be able to offer additional functionality, such as built-in DVRs. (Unlike earlier DVR/TV combos, which were limited to over-the-air programming or basic cable, Tru2way products would be able to record any of the hundreds of channels you receive.) And including the tuner inside the TV would offer the potential for better picture quality, since a TV signal native to the TV would no longer be reliant on the so-so video processing found on most set-top boxes. Beyond the TV, Tru2way functionality could be built-in to third-party DVRs (TiVo is already said to be working on a “Series4″ DVR that utilizes the technology) and accessories,” Falcone reports.

“So what’s not to like? Nothing–except that none of this yet exists in the real world. Until you can actually buy one of these Tru2way products at Best Buy, Circuit City, or Amazon, it’s all theoretical. Sony joins Panasonic, Samsung, and RCA on the Tru2way roadmap, but whether any of these companies will actually deliver a real world Tru2way product before the end of the year remains to be seen,” Falcone reports.

Full article here.

And what do you do with that empty space where your ugly and horribly-programmed cable box used to be? Just plop a nice Apple TV in there and you’re all set!

30 Comments

  1. ““This marketplace agreement is good news for consumers,” said Edgar Tu, Sony Electronics’ Senior Vice President “

    I’ll believe that when I hear it from a consumer watchdog organization.

    “The agreement includes safeguards to facilitate the development of a robust, two-way retail market “

    Gosh, I wonder what Sony’s idea of robust is? Another rootkit? Distribute in Atrac format?

  2. How different will this be from the cable card initiative? With the cable card, the party-poopers were cable companies. This time around, I wouldn’t be surprised if set-top box makers lobbied hard to prevent this from ever happening.

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