Sunday, May 07, 2006

Settop Boxes: Politics, Economics, and Possibility

Settop boxes are the maligned stepchildren of the digital revolution. When you hear about them it's mostly complaints. And yet, treated right, they just might be the key to making everything work.

Here's the key: that digital box is really a stealth network computer. We seldom think of them that way but they have the same digitally-based flexibility that any computing machine has. I've got two in my house. One from Cox and Motorola (which I totally ignore) and one from TiVo (which I love). The TiVo is a straight-on linux box. Entire user communities exist to "mess" with its software. It's currently a a top-notch Digitial Video Recorder (DVR) but there is no reason to think that's all it could be.

There is some current, locally-relevant news on TiVo's boxes--that's what touched off this Sunday morning ramble. It beginning to look like TiVo might cut a deal with Cox, or at least that's the way some TiVo fanatics read the tea leaves. That's good local news, I've written a bit about why you'll like TiVo and why DVR's are the leading edge of a new TV model. Being able to get it directly from Cox would be the proverbial very good thing. TiVo should also be available from LUS when the time comes. According to the story the people at TiVo also:
have a deal with the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC), a purchasing organization that represents over 1,000 independent cable operators, which collectively serve around 14 million subscribers.
The NCTC is the federally chartered organization that's designed to ensure a level playing field in the provision of cable content to the little guys. LUS has said they'll be using their service and picking up on the TiVo alternative would please the geeky sorts in town.

So it looks like you're going to be able to choose TiVo from a cable provider in Lafayette. Preferably from LUS.

But back to the question of the settop box as a stealth computer. If LUS provides it, it could conceivably become the hub of a truly different community-based computing experience. And that's well worth dreaming about. I want to be clear, however: this is dreaming. It's the nature of settop boxes and the fact that TiVos are Linux computers that will be available in discounted bulk to LUS that inspires the dreaming. (Currently you can get a new dual tuner TiVo DVR/Linux computer for about 50 bucks up front plus a 17 dollar monthly fee.) But I've no indication that folks are thinking down this pathway. (But, hey, we could start that up!)

Any settop box that LUS provides will be, ipso facto, the default Lafayette computer standard. Its potential may go unused but it will sit out there as the single "best-selling" computer in Lafayette. It's still unsettled what video technology LUS will use initally. Some choices, which were new when the initial planning was done, have matured and those choices would require a settop box. By all indications LUS is leaning toward a technology that doesn't require a settop box. But in either case you can bet that there will be lots of LUS boxes in Lafayette; those are required for the more interactive, profitable services that evey cable company is pushing. LUS will be no exception to that rule.

But consider the potential of having a community-standard, probasbly community-owned computer sitting at the end of a big pipe in most households in the city. Once you wrap your head around that the possibilities explode. --ok, I've gotta run for Jazz Fest, but let me just toss some words out and let you chew on the possibilities and fill in the blanks:

(remember Sun) network computing,
Digitial Divide,
Grid Computing.
local portals
Distributed computing
Distributed storage
Big network caching
online ajax-powered (or similar) network applications
common community databases
common community calendars

All, all much easier, better, much cheaper, and more consistently implemented if we make good use of the settop box computers that we'll have.

---more if I've got the energy when I get back from N.O. Otherwise talk it up in the comments and do the work of dreaming for yourselves.

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