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The Set-top Box cometh

The Set-top Box cometh

The Set-top Box cometh

Set-top BoxIn my role as Product Development Manager at PlusNet, I see lots of products that the seller would have us believe will be the 'next big thing'™. It's rare that I agree. Few new technologies stand out as being anything life changing, and often I have to point out to manufacturers how notoriously difficult UK consumers are to please. Just because someone has sold X million units in Japan or the States it's no indication that a product will fly in the UK. There is however one development that stands out from the crowd. By 2009 I believe it will have changed the way most of us consume our Internet at home. I'm not talking about super-uber-ultra pocket size laptops or Internet watches, but something that's been threatening to breakthrough for years - the simple old set top box. There's nothing particularly surprising here of course. We've had Sky+ boxes under our telly for years and before that the more savvy among us brought a Tivo and converted our Xboxes to become Opensource streaming media players. What is new is that manufacturers are finally bringing their 'hybrid' solutions to market. These devices will bring together what until now has needed deep pockets or a degree in geekiness to achieve. New products like the Archos TV+ represent a step in the right direction, but a device which combines a Freeview tuner, PVR, High Def local Media player, photo-viewer, IPTV  streaming (enabled for real content like BBC iPlayer, 4OD etc) and a decent web browser remains illusive. The first manufacturer to do it well, and for the right price, is set to make a fortune. The BBC iPlayer, as many people predicted, is the thing that will drive much of this change. It is already becoming a normal part of people's viewing habits. Dave plans to  publish a detailed blog on the topic soon, but we have seen a 68% increase in streaming traffic since December. If the implications of that from an ISPs perspective are scary, what happens when people can watch iPlayer content directly on their telly is positively terrifying. I will leave Dave to expand on the topic of bandwidth, but I've already seen a demo from a company (who I hope we can work with in the future) with iPlayer working on a set top box and I can tell you that it's going to be very compelling for any consumer. So, if 2008 is the year where streaming content goes mainstream, I think 2009 will be the year when the main method of Internet access in the home changes from the PC to a multitude of new devices, especially the set top box on top of your telly. You can be sure that all of us at PlusNet are planning for that now. As the manufacturers battle to build the best product, we will be talking to them all with a view to helping our customers find the best fit for their requirements. As well, of course, as making sure that your favourite ISP is geared up to support the inevitable increases in demand that will come as a result. Let us know what you think. And if you know of a device that might change the world, please do add your comments to this post.

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Not applicable
Convergence has been the key word for many years now, and I think 2008 will see this further explode into mass market. For starters the E-TV (http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2008/01/30/asus_announces_eee_tv/) will be hitting shops soon. That will then spark greater interest and further convergence. I've had a media centre in my living room for the last couple of years and, to be honest, I'd much prefer all the functionality to be achieved by one thing, and my TV would be a good candidate. These set-top boxes will help create more momentum within the TV manufacturing industry to integrate the features directly within the TVs, without the need for even a STB. For now, though, I welcome this and may even be tempted to get one for myself :-)
Grafter
I'm not convinced about integration with TVs. All my TVs are over 5 years old (I really do need to get myself one of these 'hud tuvs' sometime!). The TVs are fine, but I've swapped set top boxes at least 3 times in that period. I think the TV manufacturers would prefer to keep things simple for cost, support and international inter-operability reasons. I don't even see many TVs even coming with built in freeview tuners yet. Ian
Not applicable
Although it's not going to happen over night, I'm sure the TV mfrs will persist with convergence. Without hard facts available I'm willing to bet that most LCD and Plasmas sold in the UK now will have built-in freeview. There were also many intergrated digital TVs (IDTVs) in the less successful days of ondigital (which is effectively the same technology and standards as freeview now - DVB-T with MHEG-5 providing interactivity). Remember, digital TV in many other countries isn't achieved through DVB-T, so the fact that mfrs have integrated freeview shows that they do have an appetite for integrating specific technologies and building TVs for local markets. It is likely to be several more years (although maybe even as few as 5), but I'm convinced TVs with integrated internet capabilties will be the "in" thing. Surfing and using the internet will become more of a living room (lean-back) habbit and if there's demand for it, the consumer elecntronics mfrs will make it easier for everyone. I remember the days when people didn't want to have washer-dryers or fridge-freezers, or when people didn't want to add cameras, mp3, video or pda functionality to phones. But there became a market for this type of convergence, so I'm sure consumers will only continue to demand integration. You'll probably even see Microsoft selling Windows-powered TVs in the not-too-distance future. They've had a couple of attempts at it before - e.g. http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2003/nov03/11-25nettvisionpr.mspx. I believe they're also behind some of the technology driving BT Vision (ok, so that is a STB, but the point is they are already in the industry). Given the right price and functionality, I'd certainly buy a TV with intergrated internet capabilities. Beats having a media centre clogging up space (even if i do like the look of mine).
Grafter
I don't think we disagree too much - 5 years is an incredibly long timescale in this industry. You are right about DVB-T becomming defacto in new TVs, but the value of the solution - The hybrid element of a PVR and all the stuff that results in people moving away from PCs for their entertainment will, I think, come through the set-top box first. Certainly my view is that 2009 is set to be the year of the Set-top box, where 2008 looks to see streaming taking off, but mainly still accessed through the PC. Ian