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The Skini on set-top boxes

June 20, 2011 |  6:01 am

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If size matters in the TV set-top box market, the new Skini by semiconductor company Sigma Designs wins by losing.

The Skini -- a combination of pay-TV receiver, Internet TV terminal and home automation hub -- is about the size of a couple of packs of playing cards, and it hangs off a wall outlet like a night light. It uses advanced powerline networking technology to connect to a home network, and Z-Wave wireless networking to receive commands from a remote control and send them to compatible light fixtures, thermostats and other devices.

The company unveiled a reference design for the box Monday. Michael Weissman, the company's vice president of corporate marketing, said he expects to see products based on Skini by Christmas or early next year, including digital media receivers and pay-TV set-tops. Those should sell for less than $100, he said.

That's the right price, and you've got to love the mini Skini's ability to hide behind the TV -- its remote's radio-frequency signals can pass through objects, unlike the infrared signals used by most controllers. Its capabilities are impressive too, at least on paper.

What would truly be compelling is if Skini-based products enabled consumers to combine basic pay-TV services with low-cost Internet video subscriptions, such as Netflix and Hulu, into more affordable video packages. But just because the reference design is capable of doing so, that doesn't mean pay-TV operators will interested in providing those features in their set-top boxes. Any company selling premium tiers and on-demand movies would have little or no incentive to help customers subscribe to Netflix instead.

A coalition of consumer electronics manufacturers, retailers and Internet companies has been pushing the Federal Communications Commission to circumvent that problem by adopting a new standard for set-top interoperability. Called AllVid, it would enable device makers to create gateways that bring multiple sources of audio and video to the TV screen, including pay-TV services, Internet feeds and files stored on home computers.

Not surprisingly, cable operators hate AllVid, arguing that the market, not government, should determine which technologies prevail. They also note that Internet-ready TVs are proliferating, an increasing number of which can receive cable TV service without requiring a set-top box. That's because those sets adhere to the cable industry's unique protocols, which would be useless to set buyers who switch to any other form of pay TV. But cable operators are also starting to deliver programming to devices whose interfaces they don't control, such as the iPad.

The open, multi-function environment envisioned by AllVid is tailor-made for the Skini. A federal mandate for the AllVid interface, Weissman of Sigma Designs said,  "only accelerates the opportunity for this type of technology."

The FCC hasn't ruled yet on AllVid. According to Ryan Lawler of GigaOm, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski offered attendees at last week's cable industry trade show a typically opaque update on the proceeding, saying the commission would “take steps to spur innovation in and around the TV platform.”

RELATED:

DirecTV considering Netflix-like online service

Bamboom takes over-the-top TV over the top

Two-way battle over: cable wins

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Credit: Sigma Designs

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