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Open Source STB: Wave of the Future or Guaranteed Flop?

Over the past few years, the set-top box industry has been nothing short of a disaster. In addition to Digeo, makers of the Moxi DMR, cutting its workforce in half and ditching most of its products, TiVo — the world’s most popular DVR company — lost almost $48 million last year, easily eclipsing the company’s $34 million loss in 2006. And with cable companies offering the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD for only a few dollars each month, most companies are forced to sell set-top boxes for practically nothing.

With that in mind, AHT has announced the release of its first open source set-top box. Dubbed Tribbox, the device will run you about 310 euros ($453) and can be plugged into any existing home network via Ethernet. But unlike its competitors, the Tribbox is designed with both consumers and OEMs in mind. According to the company, companies can develop a full-fledged set-top box with the pre-installed Linux OS, and because it’s an open-source device, consumers can create a GUI and an “embedded system, media center, car entertainment system or whatever!”

Of course, the company is also quick to mention that the Tribbox is not necessarily a set-top box, noting that it doesn’t include a hard drive out of the box. Instead, you’ll be forced to find your own SATA hard drive and connect it with the help of the included cables.

Regardless, can an open source set-top box survive and succeed in an environment where companies are practically forced to sell devices at a loss just to compete?

Sure, the Tribbox may cost almost $400 less than the TiVo, but it’s still over $400, and the chances of someone buying this device are slim when a well-known and well-received device like the TiVo is sitting right next to it. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to find that same TiVo much cheaper on Amazon.

Sadly, we’ve entered a stage in this industry where the set-top box may only be revolutionized by large companies that have the money to invest in research and can afford to charge much less than TiVo. Is the Tribbox idea a good one? To some extent. But are people truly willing to pay that much for a device that won’t even work the way they want it to out of the box and requires Linux and developing knowledge as a pre-requisite for use?

Try as it might, the open source set-top box is dead in the water until it can create a compelling reason for us to consider it. Until then, enjoy your TiVo.

Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who covers everything from Google to HDTVs. He currently writes for over 15 popular technology publications, including CNET’s Digital Home, InformationWeek and Future Publishing in the UK.

8 Responses to “Open Source STB: Wave of the Future or Guaranteed Flop?”

  1. The Tribbox ( is not the first open STB.

    The Neuros OSD ( has been around for more than a year now, and has an active community contributing nice applications.

    Open devices are the future, customers don’t need more expensive crippled products which are end-of-lifed 6 months later. Insted, give them the power to be creative with your product, and let them imagine features that you would never have thought of, and there you have your best evangelist and happy users!

  2. François Coli

    Good review!

    We should note that the Tribbox is not only an open source set top box that can compete with Tivo, but also a dandy developer tool and a fun geek toy!

    A Linux-based platform, complete SDK, and dedicated support group ( allows us to develop custom applications for personal use, but more importantly for commercial use and large volume sales!

    Plus, as I understand, it already runs Tribler P2P.


  3. Yes, the STB really needs improvement. Actually it’s in need of a new paradigm. Just like AT&T let Steve Jobs reinvent the mobile phone, one of these cable companies needs to let an outside company totally reinvent the set-top box. The cable companies clearly are not going to do it themselves; they are brain dead, like AT&T.

    Switched Digital Video is just going to be more of the same.

  4. Switched Digital Video (SDV) will be here in a couple of years and it may be the end of the STB. The only reason we have these stupid things is because of encryption. We’re ruining the TV viewing experience in order to “protect” Hollywood’s content, but the real effect is to make me watch less TV and use the Internet more.

  5. Don,
    I am not sure why you are so negative. I must admit this STB is at first glance, a bit unrealistic.

    But really, whats the difference between it and a AppleTV? AppleTV is cheaper sure. But once an AppleTV is hacked, whats the difference. All we are talking about is a platform, if it gets widely adopted, could be a good starting point for a more open Internet TV platform.

    Set top boxes like this are very common. When I was involved in developing Hotel video on demand systems, we went though a lot of STB, all linux based. Microsoft was ruled out early (To heavy). Linux is simply the best embeded platform around. Runs in a smaller foot print they any other OS with its added capabilities.
    And at the end of the day, the bigest problems with STB back when I was working with them was CPU performance, memory limitations, no FAN and PRICE.

    You could cut down on all these but as you do you loose functionality. A STB of today needs to be a small computer that is capable of H.264 at 1080 at 25mbit. Not an easy task. Even AppleTV cannot do that. (But I expect a new AppleTV hardware based on the new micro design seen in the Macbook AIR very soon.)

    But Still, some type of STB is going to have to be developed that can do this. Consumers are not simply going to expect a DVB-T/ATSC capable STB that can view terrestrial TV on. They will want a box that can view the thousands of channels on the internet as well.

    So what is stoping the TV makers (Who implement small embeded OS type functions in TVs now as to display on screen control and programming of the TV), the Digital STB makers from adding in these features.
    Thats a better question to ask. (I am preparing a big blog post on this topic looking at these issues, so look out for it on my site in the future)


  6. RSS-TV is an extensible markup language (XML)-based navigation protocol for Internet Media services based on the RSS standard. The adoption of RSS-TV enables video device manufacturers to develop applications to seamlessly navigate premium Internet video services. Example video devices include set top boxes, portable video players, game consoles, broadband-connected digital video disc (DVD) players, digital video recorders (DVRs), portable video players and mobile phones. By implementing the RSS-TV protocol, these devices provide user access to a growing library of online media (video, audio, games) services.