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Michael Hiltzik: One box to rule them all

October 12, 2010 |  4:48 pm

The battle for the set-top box is an ancient one, meaning in consumer technology terms it dates back two decades or so. First, decoder boxes became necessary to unscramble your cable signal, then to provide you with premium services such as HBO. Cable operators and box manufacturers dreamed of using set-top boxes to push services at viewers such as home shopping and video on demand.

As my Wednesday column observes, the hard-disc video viewing enabled by ReplayTV and TiVo when they arrived on the scene 10 years ago was the first true advance in the viewing experience since, well, color TV. Back then the boxes were known as PVRs or "personal video recorders," but as "digital video recorders" they are now part of the box in more than a third of all U.S. homes. They've evolved significantly since I reviewed the originals in this piece.

Now the DVR seems poised to morph into something new -- a box to give you access to an even larger selection of video via the Internet. Netflix and Roku say that usage of their service has surged as the number of video and movie titles available for "instant viewing" -- Netflix's term -- has grown, and the company is making new deals all the time. Whose box will rule?

The column starts below.

As the last century waned, scarcely a day passed without someone showing up in our newsroom offering a demonstration of a new dot-com service or consumer device. ECommerce sites for T-shirts and sandals, search sites paying jackpots to lucky users, you name it.

One day a team from a company called ReplayTV wheeled in a television set wired to a box with a hard drive inside. They hooked it up to our cable jack to show how we could use it to pause, rewind and fast-forward live TV.

I still remember that day because it was the only time I ever left one of those pitch meetings thinking, “That will change my life, and I must have it.” Today such devices, known as digital video recorders, are commonplace — a survey last year estimated that 36% of all U.S. homes have at least one, many provided by their cable or satellite company.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik