When I think about how many boxes I have connected to my home theatre system, I feel a little ridiculous. There’s the Tivo HD for my cable and time-shifting needs, the Sling Box Pro HD for my location-shifting needs, the Apple T.V. for easy access to iTunes content, and the Blu-ray player for BD’s and DVD’s. But the really sad thing is that even with all of these different boxes and their bundled services, I still don’t feel that I have the kind of control that I want over my media.
To illustrate the limitations of my current system, consider what it would take to get an episode of “The Daily Show” from my Tivo HD on to my iPhone. I would need to hook a computer up to the Tivo via Ethernet cable, transfer the episode on to the computer, transcode the Tivo formatted file into a video format that the iPhone can display (and pray that this doesn’t introduce any sync problems), import the resulting file into iTunes and transfer it over to the iPhone. Phew. I get dizzy just thinking about it! Sure I could pay for an iTunes download that comes pre-formatted for the iPhone, but why should I pay an extra two dollars when I’ve already paid Comcast and Tivo for the content?
I believe that this situation is a symptom of the transitional age that we are living in. As the digital march continues inexorably forward, content creators and distributors are scrambling to keep up. The default tactic of the Film and TV industries has been to lock everything down. So we find ourselves in the absurd position of not having control over the manner in which we consume our paid content. And, of course, the tactic is not working as intended. The measures adopted thus far, have proven completely ineffective at stemming the tide of piracy and the only people who are really being punished are those of us who actually pay for content. Let’s pretend, for a glorious moment, that there were no gatekeepers fighting tooth and nail to protect their out-of-date business models. What would the perfect set-top box look like? What would it do?
My perfect set-top box would combine the functions of a Tivo, a Sling Box, and a Blu-ray player. There would be one unified and easy-to-use interface. Tivo’s UI would be a great model as it is the essence of good design. Furthermore, unlike the Apple T.V., the everything box would support a wide array of video and audio formats. It would play nicely with portable media devices and allow the ripping of BD’s and DVD’s on to a spacious internal hard drive. Finally, there would be the option of paying a flat monthly fee that would include basic cable as well as an all-you-can eat movie plan, with the quality of the Apple TV’s HD content and the breadth of Netflix’s streaming library.There are a number of media-center style PC’s that come close to offering all of the functions that I have described here, but these devices are pricey and overly complicated. I envision a device in the ballpark of $300, perhaps subsidized like a cellphone, with a contract and a monthly service charge.
Of course such a device is a pipe dream. When I think about how difficult it was to get Comcast to just give me the necessary hardware to use a Tivo, this dream seems more like a fantasy. But consider the following: If you had told me a couple of years ago that Apple would be selling all of its music without DRM, I would have laughed cynically and called you naiive. Yet here we are. You’ll recall that at first there was only one major music label, EMI, who agreed to sell their music DRM-free. They were rewarded by increased sales and the others labels eventually followed suit. I believe that in the not-too-distant future, the Film and TV industries will wake up and realize the wisdom in EMI’s DRM-free philosophy. Because in the end, the only way to effectively compete with digital piracy is to offer a more reliable product that is more convenient to consume. Once they get that, my Everything Box will just be a matter of time.