A year ago, the Silicon Valley startup Fan TV showed off the next-generation set-top box it had built in secret. The sleek hockey puck, designed by Yves Behar, combines the functions of a traditional cable box with media streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku. But it had one big problem — no cable company had yet agreed to let Fan TV serve as its cable box, making it basically useless. Today, Fan TV has finally reached an agreement with a national cable company — and as a result, its set-top box will soon be available in some of the country's biggest markets.
Time Warner Cable, which serves 30 million customers across the country, said today that it will be compatible with Fan TV when the device ships at the end of this quarter. You can pre-order the box for $99 today at fan.tv; the regular price will be $149. Customers can upgrade without changing their existing contract or paying any fees beyond the cost of the box. "The Fan TV experience is a leap forward for the cable industry," said Mike Angus, a senior vice president at Time Warner, in a statement.
Fan TV did have to make some concessions to the cable giant
Like other over-the-top services, Fan TV tries to improve on the standard cable-TV grid by helping you sort your viewing options: by type of show, by movie genre, by actor, and so on. The device is controlled using a buttonless, pebble-like touchpad designed to be used without touching. It integrates live TV, video on demand, and streaming services. But Fan TV did have to make some concessions to the cable giant: live TV is always on in the background, instead of being merely a channel in the interface. A cloud DVR service, which was originally supposed to be part of the offering, isn't yet available. And the lineup of compatible streaming services lacks marquee names like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go — instead you'll find C-list players like Redbox Instant by Verizon, Crackle, Target Ticket, and Rhapsody. (Fan TV says more streaming services will be added over time.)
Then there's the matter of Time Warner's planned merger with Comcast. Even Gilles BianRosa, Fan TV's CEO, says he doesn't know how long Fan TV will still be supported by Time Warner if the merger goes through. "You'll have to ask Comcast," he says. It's unlikely that service would be shut down immediately, but it might still give some buyers pause.
People in the market for a set-top box have never had more options — Amazon's Fire TV is only the most recent entrant in a crop that also includes Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast. But none of those seamlessly integrate live TV. The first iteration of Fan TV is far from perfect. But it does represent an encouraging sign that the cable industry is willing to try new things.