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Creating the Magic Box

Even if you had a digital TV and received an interactive digital broadcast, you would still be limited to programming from your local airwaves broadcasters or cable or satellite TV distributor. Gaining access to all entertainment all of the time requires technology that would let you find specific movies, TV shows and Internet videos, download and store them on a hard drive, and play them whenever you wanted-on any display screen, not just a digital TV.

The race to provide such a component began in 1999, when startup companies TiVo of San Jose, CA, and ReplayTV of Mountain View, CA, introduced the first prototypes, dubbed personal video recorders or digital video recorders. Essentially, they operate like set-top boxes with fat hard drives. The signal from your cable or satellite television distributor passes through the machine’s memory en route to your TV. The box records and plays back the signal at the same time. That allows you to pause an episode of The West Wing, run to the bathroom for two minutes, then pick up exactly where you left off, the machine playing it from storage as it continues to record the ongoing broadcast. You see the whole show but end at 10:02 instead of 10:00. Or you can fast-forward and catch up. You can even freeze live action to marvel at Martin Sheen’s furrowed brow. The early boxes cost $400 to $700, plus a monthly subscription fee of $10 to $20 (or $200 lifetime).

The bigger possibility was that, eventually, you could bypass your local cable company completely. You could tell your digital video recorder to search a large electronic program guide maintained by TiVo or Replay and then download all sorts of shows from all sorts of broadcasters. You could select a 1956 variety show, all of Julia Roberts’s movies or the first eight episodes of Star Trek. In short, you could have custom TV. Worried, most of Hollywood’s major studios, and most of the major cable and satellite TV providers, invested in or partnered with TiVo or Replay, so they wouldn’t be shut out if such a service began.

Neither company has fulfilled the grand vision, however. In November 2000 ReplayTV announced it would stop making boxes; digital-media company Sonicblue soon purchased ReplayTV and is integrating its technology into future products. TiVo continues, but with limited service and software. Its box can connect to the Internet, but it uses a narrowband modem, so it cannot support interactive viewing. More importantly, the central store of “all” television shows and movies has not materialized. Subscribers can only get TV shows offered by their cable or satellite providers. And they still must wait until a show is aired to record it. TiVo has not been able to convince media companies to make their content available directly through a TiVo program guide in part because its software cannot prevent consumers from making and swapping unauthorized copies, or stop hackers from stealing the signal. “It is very easy to copy a digital signal and rebroadcast it with no loss,” says Carl McGrath, vice president of Motorola’s DigiCable division. “The content industry is scared to death, and they should be.” So are the distributors.

Seeing the potential to sell a new type of box and attract monthly TV subscribers, Microsoft entered the fray in March 2001, when its competing digital video recorder and service, called UltimateTV, hit retail shelves. It gives consumers DirecTV’s satellite programs but feeds them through a video recorder box. The package also includes Microsoft’s WebTV software, which lets you connect to the Internet through a phone line and display Web pages and e-mail on your TV. But like TiVo, UltimateTV is too slow to download Internet video. It cannot provide piracy- or copy-protection either.

Motorola is also taking aim at the magic box. It makes more than two-thirds of set-top cable boxes. New boxes in its DCT5000 series, for sale this year, will have more computing power than a digital video recorder and include a broadband cable modem. “It really is a video workstation,” says McGrath. The successor device now being developed will have a hard drive for storing and replaying video, turning the set-top box into a broadband digital video recorder.

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Tagged: Computing

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