Intel's TV 'Black Box Project' poised for big changes in debut

The company is testing its take on the TV set-top box with more than 2,000 employees, but the final version launching later this year will be very different from the trial product, CNET has learned.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
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Intel hosted a pop-up store in New York's Meatpacking District in May to show off ultrabooks to consumers. Shara Tibken/CNET
Thousands of Intel employees have exclusive trial access to the company's up-and-coming TV service, but what they're using is leaps away from the final product, CNET has learned.

As CNET earlier reported, Intel in late March started conducting closed trials of its Internet TV service and set-top box with company employees in three West Coast markets. We've now learned more about that test program, code-named the "Black Box Project."

Currently, more than 2,000 Intel employees in Northern California, Arizona, and Oregon are testing the product in their homes, people familiar with the matter told CNET. That number could "grow substantially," one person said, with new testers being added every day.

The test product installed in each home involves early trial hardware and an old version of the user interface design, those people said. The software being tested will have many similarities to the final version -- such as how users navigate the system -- but the hardware design will be completely different, they said.

"What people are using now is not the final product," one of the people said.

In addition, the trial content available on the box "is not representative in any way, shape, or form of what will be on there" at launch, the person said.

Intel earlier revealed that it plans to launch hardware and software later this year that lets users watch live TV, on-demand programs, and other content in their homes and on mobile devices. The subscription service will deliver the programming over a broadband Internet connection, known as "over the top," and the trial is critical to Intel's preparations for launch. The company has pretty ambitious efforts in the Internet-based TV business, but a weak launch could set back its efforts or kill the business entirely.

With the test, Intel gathers information about areas such as order taking, logistics, usage habits, quality and stability of the product, the performance of the back-end system, and the responsiveness of Intel's customer service system, known as "Audience Care," the people familiar with the trial said. Intel then incorporates the feedback into updates, which is the main reason that many aspects of the test version don't resemble the final product, the people said.

The software used by employees in the trial will be "something very close to the final product" in terms of user interface, look and feel, navigation, and other features by the end of the test program, one person said.

All employees participating have to go through confidentiality training, and they're only allowed to use the device and service in their own homes with their families, the people said.

While Intel has been testing the product for months, it still faces some hurdles. One of those is reaching content deals. Time Warner Cable and other cable TV providers have been pressuring channel owners to shun pacts with Intel and other Internet-based TV providers, but Intel has said it would have deals done in time for a 2013 launch.