Monday, January 16, 2006

Open TV Access on Open Platforms? -- A New Era at CES

This year's CES marks a turning point in the battle for open TV, with two major developments that will mutually reinforce one another.

  1. Open Access: One development is the high profile move of prime TV and movie content brands to work with major Internet services, like Google and Yahoo, to bypass the stranglehold of the cable distributors.
  2. Open Platforms: The other development is the introduction of the Intel Viiv platform, that promises to change the competitive landscape for the open PC platform as an alternative to proprietary set-top boxes.

The move toward open access has gotten most of the press. (See my posts on TV Meets the Internet as Manifest Destiny -- Soon? and The Distribution War to Come -- A Tale of Two Pipes for some reflections on this.)

Open platforms could be equally catalyzing. Aside from their exclusive access to prime content, the incumbent distributors rely on closed set-top boxes (from Motorola and Cisco/Scientific Atlanta). These boxes are albatrosses:

  1. They intentionaly limit what outsiders can do -- by being closed, and
  2. They unintentionally limit what the distributors, themselves, can do -- by being closed off from the dynamic ecology of the PC industry.

PC-based TV has been on the margins for years, but has not been ready for prime time. Media Center PC's (such as those from Microsoft) deliver TV service and TiVo-like DVR capabilities, but have been rightly criticized as big, noisy, and lacking the mass-market simplicity needed for plain old TV. They are the butt of jokes about boot-ups and crashes.

Viiv promises to remove those limitations. This new platform is compact and powerful, with full support for HDTV and surround sound, and with instant-on features. Cable card support will facilitate connections to cable systems. Microsoft Vista will enhance its user interface.

More importantly, this Viiv platform brings the dynamics of the open PC market ecology -- with its huge economies of scale and collaborative product development -- to the world of TV. Motorola, Cisco/SA, and the other specialized set-top box and TV middleware vendors have little hope of keeping pace with Intel on chips, or with its allies, including Microsoft, perhaps Apple, and the myriad innovative players in the PC and Internet hardware/software/service space.

The demo's of Viiv/MediaCenter HDTV user interfaces are already striking. Other software/service providers will layer on their own innovations -- adding an open ecology of rich Internet-based services, as well as rich integration of devices in the networked home. Once that happens, the comparison to cable, satellite, and telco offerings that don't exploit this open platform and ecology will become increasingly unequal. (See NetworkWorld on Debunking the set-top box safety net, and Forbes on Cisco's Misplaced Assumption.)

Smart consumer electronics companies will also join in this ecology (before HP, Dell, Gateway, Apple, and others eat their lunch). The Viiv brand need not dominate the market to the extent Intel may hope -- competing silicon such as AMD's Live can be expected to be significant as well. What matters is that these PC-world products may bring us to a tipping point in the competitive balance for entertainment devices. Some good background is in a recent Forrester report, Intel Viiv Tackles Digital Home Barriers With Silicon.

This kind of dynamic openness has been talked about for a long time, but has remained elusive. But maybe--with these serious steps toward open access and open platforms--"the stars are beginning to align" at last.



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