Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

Would You Put Your Digital Life in the Hands of a Cable Box?

I came across not one, but two articles on MSNBC today about niche markets that Microsoft currently dominates that are becoming more mainstream. One is a well researched, if not slightly misguided piece on Home Theatre PCs (who needs a Core 2 Quad in a media server, and HomePlug… seriously??), and the other has some misleading information about Home Servers that I just couldn’t let slide. From the article:

Microsoft, and its Windows Home Server software that it launched in January, is expected to rule the home server market for the next five years, during which PC-based servers will be the dominant solution. But [Diffusion Group senior analyst Ted] Theocheung says the real spike in consumer adoption won't come until after consumer electronics companies begin building server-like functions into their entertainment system products, which will overtake the PC as the primary source of such store-and-synch capability. In particular, he expects cable operators to be leaders in this transition, doing for servers what they did for DVRs by including the functionality in set-top boxes.

"That changes the whole model," Theocheung says. "If you have to buy these yourself, the trend is going to be slower. But when service providers latch onto this and let you just add $5 to your $100 monthly cable bill, it's not a noticeable impact. Then you're going to see some action."

I have a couple major issues with this argument that I believe will not allow this to come to pass:

You are not the DVR manufacturer’s customer. I was at CES a few years ago, right when Cisco bought major DVR maker Scientific Atlanta. I went up to their booth and asked one of the people there about Networked DVRs, and their rep said “We will never have that functionality.” I pressed him further by saying I had the functionality in Windows Media Center, and I wanted it in their DVR, so that I could watch stuff from their DVR on other DVRs and on my Media Center PC. He again said “We will never allow that to happen because our customers don’t want it.” When I said, “But I have one of your DVRs, so I’m your customer, and I want it,” he thanked me for my time, and turned to talk to someone else.

In my youthful naiveté, I did not realize that I was not, in fact, their customer after all. Their customer was Cox, who was kind enough to loan me their DVR to use in my home in exchange for part of my hard-earned money every month. Cisco’s customer, Cox, did not want people to watch their recordings on more than one room in the house, so they weren’t going to do it. While it appears that never came too soon, there is no doubt that the cable companies want to exhibit as much control over the content that comes over their equipment as possible.

High failure rates of cable-provided DVRs are unacceptable for “life media” storage. Have you ever had your DVR fail? I have, on more than one occasion... and the heartbreak of losing every episode of this season’s 24 to a bad firmware update can sometimes be extremely painful. When you lose a DVR, you know how much time is spent trying to recover those recordings you spent so much time trying to attain? ZERO. The cable company doesn’t care, they come out and replace your box. That’s it. Anything more would cost them thousands in support hours that they would be very unwilling to eat.

Would cable box-based home servers feature the redundancy of Windows Home Server? Not a chance. You can’t even replace the hard drive in your DVR now, think they’ll let you have hot-swappable drives? Again, not a chance.

Cable companies have near limitless power over your digital life already. They’re already locking down the content you record, throttling your bandwidth, and limiting what you can and cannot access. What happens when you put your collection of ripped CDs on your cable-owned Home Server/DVR. What’s to stop the cable company from providing that information to the RIAA? Right now, nothing.

My Two Cents: Home Servers don’t need the cable companies to bring the technology mainstream. PCs are already mainstream. The hardware is cheap, easily replaceable, and user serviceable. IMHO, WHS is going to dominate this area for the next decade, especially when they move the technology onto the Vista codebase, and start integrating it with Windows Media Center. THAT is the day when I think HTPCs may replace cable boxes as the dominant force in consumer living rooms.

But that’s just my opinion. So let me pose it to you, dear readers. Would you trust the irrecoverable elements of your digital life in the hands of your local cable company?

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Comments

  • kettch said:

    I'm kind of the mindset that I can pay the cable/satellite providers to get content to the cabling connectors that I've kindly provided them on the outside of my house. After that, they can piss off.

    I would love to see WHS get equipped with some sort of media server functionality. It would basically need to act as the backend for media center PC's, and extenders like the extender STB's and XBox's. At first I can deal with it just providing storage, but eventually it would be nice to have it house several (like as many as I want :D) tuners. I'd also like to be able to be able to move streams between extenders. That would mean that I could be watching something from my media center PC in the living room and decide it's time to make dinner. So, I should be able to hit pause and disconnect my living room pc from the stream, walk into the kitchen, and have the extender box in there be able to pick up the paused stream from the server and continue playing.

    August 5, 2008 2:24 AM
  • hank said:

    To be honest, I'm thinking about moving from cable companies all together.  I love watching shows when they come out on DVD sets.  No comericals, get to watch as much or as little as you want at one time, and if you get a season, you KNOW you get to watch the whole season.  I have a few shows that I would get into, love the show, and then have it canceled so it can be replaced by a reality tv show.

    Sure your a year behind... but other then that.. its awesome!

    August 5, 2008 8:24 AM
  • John Obeto said:

    You have your favorite shows DRV'd on DirectTV.

    You then decide to change providers to Dish Network/Comcast/<insert any provider here>.

    Erhh, what happens to your content?

    I'll wait until you stop shuddering in fear.

    Need I say more?

    August 5, 2008 4:51 PM
  • Stuart said:

    I'd really like to see Microsoft offer WMC as an AppleTV like device instead of a full-fledged Windows PC.  I have NEVER had any real use for the PC functionality of my Media Center PC system.  I would, however, like to see a WMC box that can network to any system on the network, including a WHS box.  MCE's are an intriguing idea but I'm not all that happy about the noise issue with my XBOX360, making it less than ideal for use as an extender.  Just build WMC into stand alone boxes (steal the Mac Mini or AppleTV internals design to keep the thing quite) but add a slot loading DVD/Blu-Ray drive and swappable internal hard drive/USB for adding external storage if you aren't running on a network or just want to keep all the TV stuff with the TV and not on the home PC.  WMC is a truly amazing system, it just needs to be uncoupled from Windows and the notion of running a full blow PC to get MC functionality.

    August 5, 2008 10:20 PM
  • I rather that my backup device did not run any software from Microsoft and that there was NO way to delete anything from the backup device without pressing a physical button on the device to confirm the delete.

    My PCs runs Windows that I am very happy with, however the largest risk to my “irrecoverable elements of my digital life”  is a fast spreading warm that deletes data on all Microsoft Windows base devices,  hence I wish my backup system not to have anything in common with my desktop system.

    Likewise If I was running Linux on the desktop, I would want a backup device that did not use any type of Unix OS.

    (If my cable company did a cheap offsite easy to use backup system that I trusted, I would be very temped with it.  However the master copy of everything would still be on my PC.)

    August 7, 2008 10:19 AM
  • Introduction Before I go into this post, I have to explain my intentions. I respect NDAs very much, and

    August 10, 2008 10:36 PM