Essay: Can We Stop with the Video CE Hardware Already?

Silicon Valley is littered with the carcasses of set-top boxes that were going to revolutionize entertainment. Rather than learning from this grim history, however, some kind of failure torch is being passed from one generation of dying-out hardware makers to a new breed angling to take a prize that just isn’t there.

MovieBeam is emblematic of both the failures of video CE’s hardware past, and the futility of its future. After floundering for years, being bought and subsequently killed by Movie Gallery, MovieBeam is now in the process of being sold to Dar Capital for $2.25 million. Is that a bargain or a big waste of time and money?

We’re guessing the latter. The only companies who have shown any success in getting consumers to adopt set-top box hardware for video content on a massive scale are the cable and satellite companies (OK, the telcos are making strong headway, too).

And it’s not like a bunch of no-names have tried.

Akimbo ditched its hardware for software (and then ditched that for white label video). Sling Media saw the light and sold its business to Echostar for $380 million last year. TiVo, for all its success, only has 1.75 million subscribers that it owns and is moving into licensing its interface for other set top boxes and getting into viewer stats.

Apple TV failed in its first iteration and still hasn’t gone mainstream with its take 2. While Vudu has won praise for its system and implementation, it has slashed prices to try and ramp up adoption. And more big names are jumping into the fray later this year. Netflix is making set-top boxes with four different manufacturers, and HP will be launching its MediaSmart Connect device.

Then there’s the new batch of wannabes eager to plug into your TV. Sezmi wants to succeed where MovieBeam failed and is hoping that attaching itself to broadband providers will be its ticket to your home. ZeeVee’s box promises to marry your PC to your TV, and Tribbox thinks open source is its key.

But the truth is, Americans just don’t want to pay for another box for their TV for video purposes. (They will buy game consoles, though, which may be able to succeed at sneaking in video.) TiVo’s beautiful, but my Comcast box works just fine (but please hurry with that TiVo interface). Buying an Apple TV would satisfy my fanboyish technology cravings, but it’s just easier to order a movie through the cable VOD.

And then you have the issue with an entirely new generation of TV watchers who are consuming content on their laptops. Forget set-top boxes, kids these days don’t even need TVs.

Instead of building boxes, how about expanding bandwidth? Or getting more content online?

These warnings and wishes will fall on deaf ears. In a Sisyphus-like fashion, hardware makers will think they have the solution that will keep that rock up at the top of the hill. They don’t. They won’t, and a new batch of boxes will bite the dust.

(Image of “Hardware Wars,” courtesy of Wikipedia.)


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