Why my cable DVR stinks

Are viewers better served by set-top boxes or dumbed-down terminals? TV providers look into it.

I love my DVR, but only when it works.

After a long week of interviews and writing stories, I was excited to hunker down in my living room one Friday night to see who had gotten booted off that week's "Project Runway." I flipped through the list of recorded programs on my digital video recorder and there was nothing.

How could this be? I knew for certain I had clicked on the "record the series" button.

"Competition is driving operators to offer more features more quickly, and often that comes at the expense of increasing complexity."
--Kip Compton,
Cisco Systems

I scrolled further and realized that it wasn't just "Project Runway" that was missing. That week's entire lineup of "The Daily Show," as well as the latest episode of "Entourage," were nowhere to be found.

I was upset, to say the least. This was the second DVR I had gotten from Time Warner since I signed up for the service in January. The previous box kept freezing and rebooting itself.

I looked online and discovered blogs full of complaints regarding the Scientific Atlanta 8000, the box Time Warner had given me not once, but twice. The whole debacle got me thinking about how complicated even the most basic things like watching television have gotten.

While I love how the DVR changed my life--letting me watch my favorite shows whenever I want and fast-forward through commercials--I was in love with it only when it worked. Because when it didn't work, I wanted to throw the whole thing out my window.

In a rush to give consumers more features, cable operators, satellite providers and phone companies are asking device makers to pack more complex capabilities into each box. Today, set-top boxes resemble a home PC more than they do a simple channel-changing cable box designed to do only three things: turn on, turn off, tune channels. Inevitably, these increasingly complicated devices are less reliable and harder to use than their predecessors.

"I would agree that things have gotten too complicated," said Kip Compton, director of business development for Cisco Systems, which now owns Scientific-Atlanta (in fairness, my DVR was made before Cisco bought the company). "Competition is driving operators to offer more features more quickly, and often that comes at the expense of increasing complexity. But it's a balancing act that the industry is trying to manage to keep up with the demand for more features while at the same time building simpler interfaces and reliable products."

Making networks intelligent
Some people in the industry suggest that instead of building more features into consumer devices, service providers and device makers should push more of the complexity into the network, so consumers are shielded from it.

The traditional telephone network is a good example of such a network. Circuit-switched telephony is by no means simple, but to the end user, picking up a phone and getting a dial tone is as simple as simple gets. And it's extremely reliable. Phone networks are designed to guarantee the network will be down no more than five minutes per year.

Some television providers have already begun exploring this concept. In March, Cablevision announced plans to test a new digital video recording service that allowed users to record and manage content through their existing set-top boxes, which would access a network-based DVR housed miles away in a Cablevision office.

The network-based DVR could save Cablevision tons of money, because company won't have to deploy and manage sophisticated devices in every subscriber's home. And subscribers wouldn't have to deal with the headache of boxes that reboot or fail altogether. But content owners quickly responded with threats of legal action, citing concerns over protecting copyright material. As a result, Cablevision put its test on hold until the digital rights management issues can be worked out, the company said.

In stark contrast to Cablevision's approach, Microsoft is selling its Media Center software that turns PCs into central repositories for all digital photos, music and video. Once hooked up to a TV, the software allows users to use their PC as a DVR to record, store and search content on their hard drives.

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