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The Divergence: Comcast really loved the idea of open cable boxes before hating it

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Exorcising the ghosts of television's past

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This is The Divergence, a weekly column from The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel, exploring the spaces around modern technology.

Tomorrow, the FCC will vote on what is formally known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Commercial Availability of Navigation Devices, or what the teens are (not) calling #unlockthebox. The goal is to require companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable to allow anyone to connect to cable TV networks with their own devices — which would mean that Apple, Microsoft, and Roku could finally build complete TV products without having to negotiate for programming deals. As you might expect, the cable industry is fighting this idea tooth and nail — they've set up an entire new industry lobbying group called the Future of TV Coalition that's running some super scary ads about the FCC, um, killing diversity or something.

But really, make no bones about it: unlocking the box is a terrific idea. You should definitely be able to go out and buy a fancy new Samsung or LG smart TV and be able to use it without a nasty cable company set-top box in the way. And things like the Xbox One and Apple TV should definitely be able to integrate with the cable television you're already paying for, allowing you to see streaming services and games and live TV all in one interface. I mean, that is the dream.

"The age of the closed, proprietary set-top box is behind us." — Comcast CEO Brian Roberts in 2008

How might one describe this dream? If you're a wild-eyed optimist, you might say that "whether you're at the PC, or at the TV using your home network, or even an Xbox, or even a portable device, the consumer gets one single, integrated user interface."

You might even go farther: you might say that "the age of the closed, proprietary set-top box is behind us," or that the "era of open cable is here."

Yeah. Here's the thing about those quotes: they're not from Apple, or Microsoft, or Roku. They are direct from Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who gave a speech at CES 2008 announcing a platform called tru2way that was designed to — surprise! — let any company build a device that could access and record cable television. He even brought Panasonic's then-CEO Toshihiro Sakamoto on stage to unveil a portable LCD TV with a built-in DVR that could record shows from Comcast's cable and then play them on the go. The thing looks completely insane now — it's all here in this CNET video:

Roberts was also effusive about tru2way to Reuters at the time: "We also knew there would be more competition and we had to change," he said. And the massive NCTA cable lobbying group published a gushing blog post about tru2way, comparing it to the internet revolution that allowed an entirely new economy to be built on top of unrestricted broadband internet.

"The original premise then, as now, is ‘choice sells,'" they said.

Well then. That's an awful lot of love for the idea that anyone should be able to connect a device to the cable network. So why the complete walkback eight years later?

In a word: apps.

The concept of apps simply didn't exist in 2008, and definitely not the explosion of video apps that are now the mainstay of every phone, tablet, and streaming box like the Apple TV. "The future of TV is apps," is literally Apple's marketing slogan for the Apple TV. And the TV industry is betting big on apps instead of boxes. Cable companies like Comcast say they would actually love to get rid of the aging set-top boxes gathering dust in customers' homes and instead deliver cable TV service to apps running on every screen in your home. It's an interesting vision of the future, and parts of it are already here: there's a Time Warner Cable app for the Roku, for instance, and Comcast has Xfinity apps for a variety of platforms. (But not the Apple TV yet. Someone please send me a screenshot!)

The cable industry is betting big on apps, not boxes

And, of course, if the cable companies keep their sky-high rates as they are while reducing the costs of delivering and servicing hardware, well, they just created a bunch of pure profit.

But all of that assumes that the cableco apps will be any good. And it assumes that the current deeply fragmented consumer TV hardware market is even ready to support an app revolution, which it most definitely is not. Here's a non-exhaustive list of the current major players who sell TVs and streaming boxes and the platforms they run:

  • Samsung: Tizen
  • Apple: tvOS
  • Vizio: Via Apps
  • LG: webOS
  • Sony: Android TV
  • Roku: Roku OS

Yeah, that's totally sustainable. Small cable companies are definitely going to be able to write, support, and maintain apps for all of these platforms, no problem. And all of these apps are going to integrate natively into all these platforms and allow them to compete as first-class citizens, leading to a burst of innovation in the living room as computing and television finally meet.

Yeah, that's never going to happen.

Instead, cable companies are going to pick one or two favored platforms — say, Samsung and Apple — and everyone else will get stuck with a cable box. And that's not so bad, because the cable box business is pretty good.

"It's no surprise that cable monopolies, which thrive on overcharging consumers for renting boxes, haven't followed though on their commitment to an open set-top box world," says Gene Kimmelman from Public Knowledge. "Why should we now believe they are motivated to move away from the price-gouging model? It will take real competition to ensure consumers get a better deal."

"This is not a technology problem. It is a business problem."

And deeper inside the industry, people think it's actually time to break this whole thing open.

"There has been a mafia-style carve up of the nation, market by market, where cable companies don't compete with each other," one very senior executive in the TV industry told me. "This is not a technology problem. It is a business problem compounded by the duopoly that exists in every TV market. (Would you like cable or satellite?) And without a bomb being dropped, the situation will likely stay on its current path."

The cable companies say that it's unfair to let companies like Samsung and Apple and Google build devices that sit in front of their TV services — the cable companies endure the tense, endless negotiations and pay millions for content, after all — but it's possible they're cutting off their nose to spite their face.

This dream is coming true one way or another

"If [they] stepped back and looked at the marketplace they would realize that this could be a great way for them to retain pay TV subscribers," said this executive. "Many people want to quit because of the bad interface, the cost of STB rentals, the limited access across device types, and the total lack of innovation in the experience."

What would you rather have: an Apple TV with a Comcast app, or an Apple TV with an Apple-designed program guide and DVR interface in front of Comcast's services? The TV industry made the promise of open cable in 2008, and now it's time to see which dream actually comes true.

Disclosure: Comcast's NBC Universal division is a minority investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company.