We've been waiting a long time for this, and we only hope it's been worth the wait. For the past few years, defenders of PC-based DVRs have defended the lackluster image quality and performance of TV tuner cards by saying today's analog standard-def tuners just couldn't cut it in the world of HD digital cable, and that some day, we'd get proper support for modern cable features. Everyone assumed that would come in the form of CableCard, a well-liked but underused technology that basically replaces your bulky set-top cable box with a small card that can be slipped into, say, a plasma TV with the appropriate slot.
The industry has been dragging its feet on CableCard for a long time, but today Microsoft announced a deal with Cable Television Laboratories to allow PCs to use CableCard with Windows Media Center by this time next year.
What does this mean for Joe Consumer? The press release sums it up by saying, "Media Center PCs, capable of supporting a CableCard module, will allow consumers to enjoy one-way cable programming, including premium high-definition cable content, on their personal computer and throughout the home on compliant network-connected devices, such as the Xbox 360."
So this means we can all record HD cable content on our PCs, burn it to DVD, move it to portable devices, and so on, right? Of course not! While not letting the cat out of the bag completely, there will be a Windows DRM system implemented for "protecting cable operators' investments in high-value content in a digital environment." This could very possibly include tagging certain programs to prevent you even recording them in the first place or placing restrictions on how long you can keep a recording.
Another potential downside is that they're referring to this as "one-way" communication, which on its face means that services such as pay-per-view or on-demand programming won't be available. The same probably goes for the cable company's program guide info, although MCE will have its own EPG data.