Can Tru2way succeed where CableCard failed?

Sony's embrace of Tru2way may put the cable-ready technology on the map, but the ghost of the preceding--and failed--CableCard technology still looms large.

If the industry press is to be believed, Tuesday's announcement that Sony would be producing TVs with Tru2way compatibility was a watershed event--the electronics world equivalent of the Magna Carta or the Treaty of Versailles. But let's step back a bit and examine what this really means.

Tru2way is a digital cable technology developed by CableLabs that's designed to be built directly into TVs, eliminating the need for an outboard set-top box. In theory, you'd be able to buy a Tru2way-compatible TV, bring it home, connect it to your coaxial cable, and instantly be able to receive your entire lineup of digital cable and high-def channels--including all the interactive video-on-demand and pay-per-view channels that currently require a cable box.

Tru2way logo
CableLabs

If this sounds familiar, it's because many of the same promises were made several years ago with a technology called CableCard. TVs that shipped with a CableCard slot were called "Digital Cable Ready" (DCR); they required a smart card, provided by your local cable operator, to receive digital and HD channels. The problem with CableCard was that it was an interim solution that satisfied nobody. Everyone--cable companies, hardware manufacturers, government regulators, and consumers--found CableCard technology lacking. Among the problems:

  • CableCard was effectively a one-way technology, so it was incompatible with any interactive services, including video-on-demand and pay-per-view services that customers have grown to like, and cable companies depend on as a major revenue stream.
  • CableCard was incompatible with Switched Digital Video (SDV) technology, which more cable providers are--or will soon be--utilizing to deliver more HD channels despite bandwidth limitations. As a result, CableCard devices such as the TiVo HD DVR need an outboard tuner (basically, a second cable box) to receive those channels, which often include the newest and most desirable HD stations.
  • The CableCard installation and setup still required the cable companies to "roll a truck" to the customer's home--so it didn't save the company any time or money versus a cable box setup.
  • Original CableCard setups were limited to just one tuner, so dual-tuner applications--such as picture in picture and the ability to record one show while watching another--were unavailable. (This issue was addressed with dual slots on the TiVo HD, as well as the multi-stream "M-card," which allowed for dual tuning--it was rarely deployed by cable operators.)
  • CableCard setups are notoriously finicky, and often require one or more follow-up visits from the cable technician.
  • The electronic programming guide (EPG) interface on most CableCard TVs was either bare bones or nonexistent. That was bad for users who've grown used to increasingly sophisticated EPGs (on TiVo and satellite DVRs). It also frustrated cable providers who were used to controlling that interface on their own boxes, where--for better or worse--they could add advertisements, customized graphics, and other "branding" that so excites multimillion dollar corporations.
  • TVs with CableCard support often charged a slight premium over their non-CableCard counterparts--meaning that consumers were often paying more, but (as evidenced by the laundry list of issues above) getting less.

Not surprisingly, there was an immediate clamor for "CableCard 2.0" to address all of those issues. And that's effectively what Tru2way is: the next-gen CableCard, without the physical card. (You may have heard it mentioned during its years of development, when it was alternately referred to as "OpenCable" or "Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP)".) And--on paper, at least--it seems as if CableLabs and its partners finally got it right this time.

Tru2way is designed from the ground up to be interactive, customizable (for the cable provider), and plug-and-play. Switched digital video, video-on-demand, pay-per-view, HD channels, dual-tuner support--it should all work without a hitch, and deliver an identical experience on your local cable system, no matter which Tru2way TV you're buying.

There are plenty of other potential advantages. Tru2way TVs should be able to offer additional functionality, such as built-in DVRs. (A handful of CableCard DVR/TV combos were released, but they never took off, thanks largely to the problems outlined above.) And including the tuner inside the TV would offer the potential for better picture quality, since a TV signal native to the TV would no longer be reliant on the so-so video processing found on most set-top boxes.

Beyond the TV, Tru2way functionality could be built in to third-party DVRs (TiVo is already said to be working on a "Series4" DVR that utilizes the technology) and accessories. Among the other possibilities: a Tru2way Slingbox with a built-in tuner; an adapter that turns the Xbox 360 or PS3 into a cable-ready DVR; true home theater PCs; and portable TV viewers (such as the Comcast/Panasonic player shown in January).

So what's not to like? Nothing--except that none of this yet exists in the real world. Until you can actually buy one of these Tru2way products at Best Buy, Circuit City, or Amazon.com, it's all theoretical.

Sony joins Panasonic, Samsung, and RCA on the Tru2way roadmap, but whether any of these companies will actually deliver a real world Tru2way product before the end of the year remains to be seen. And even if they do, there are plenty of other questions. How much will cable companies charge you for the privilege of connecting a Tru2way product to their pipe? (Our guess: exactly the same fee they charge for renting the box you have now.)

And why will companies like TiVo bother developing Tru2way boxes if the consumer will be forced to use the drab cable company interface versus the far superior TiVo UI? Just imagine, for instance, if a future Apple TV offers Tru2way compatibility, but instead of its slick Apple home screen, you're stuck with a Comcast/Time Warner/Cox EPG the minute you toggle to live TV. For most users, that would eliminate the whole reason for upgrading in the first place.

Color us skeptical
The bottom line is this: Tru2way certainly looks to offer the potential for cable customers to return to the simple, halcyon days of "cable ready" TVs--just one wire, just one remote. But until we see the products hit stores in the real world, and see how--or if--they work as advertised on cable systems around the country, color us skeptical. In the meantime, we'll be waiting patiently in the downstairs rec room, sitting on hold with tech support, trying to get the CableCard PC up and running .

What do you think: Will Tru2way make for a better cable TV experience? Or will it be the latest consumer electronics scheme to overpromise and underdeliver?

Update (5/29/2008): Be sure to read the detailed comment below from reader MegaZone (who runs the Gizmolovers website). He offers some important corrections and expansions to my CableCard/Tru2way analysis.

About the author

John P. Falcone is the executive editor of CNET Reviews, where he coordinates a group of more than 20 editors and writers based in New York and San Francisco as they cover the latest and greatest products in consumer technology. He's been a CNET editor since 2003.

 

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