Avram's Past / broadband / Consumer

Intel enters the set top race again and again

Intel is entering the set top box race.    This is not the first time.

It’s really worth reading the article by John Markoff written almost 20 years ago which I have added below.  It shows that not much has changed in the last 20 years.  The set top box remains the quicksand of consumer technology.

In 1992, Intel, Microsoft and General instruments (who at that time was run by Don Rumsfeld…yes that Don Rumsfeld) entered into an agreement to develop an interactive set top box for the cable industry.  The project was called Pandora’s Box.  The key players were Rob Glaser for  Microsoft (replaced later by Craig Mundie the current CTO of Microsoft), Matt Miller the CTO of General Instruments and me.  About a year later we announced our project.   I have posted about this before The project made no sense because it was not possible at that time to build an interactive set top box for a reasonable price point.  We at Intel only took the project on to keep Microsoft happy and out of the arms (no pun intended) of its arch competitor, AMD.  In the process, I learned how the cable infrastructure worked,  and together with Matt Miller realized that we could take the chips that were being developed for Digital TV and repurpose them to create the Cable Modem that you are probably using to read this post.

Intel tried a few more times in the late 90s to be a supplier to set top box manufacturers.  But the company could not get itself out of the chip mentality and understand that to do things right you needed an end to end capability (servers, network, devices and software).

About four or five years ago, one of the Senior VP’s at Intel who dealt with mobile technology asked me to review his organization’s plans and make recommendations.  I did that. For instance I suggested that they should focus on data security and add hooks in the chips they were developing to support this.  Of course they ignored all my suggestions.  I also asked for an opportunity to meet Eric Kim the guy that Intel had brought in from Samsung in 2004  to run their consumer business.  I had some ideas I wanted to share.  The guy could not  ever find time ever on his schedule to meet with me even after the  CEO of the company suggested it.    I would have thought he would have welcome my help and advise.  Over the years, I clearly demonstrated that I had a great deal of understanding of the consumer market but technically and from a business perspective.  I want to help  Intel but was blocked by someone that as far as I know never accomplished anything while at the company. He left in 2010 to become CEO of a clean-tech semiconductor company.

I continue to watch the set top box space even now.  No company has figured out how to make money with this kind of product.  Google has made a mess of it so far with the Google TV.  AppleTV is a great device but it is not really a set top in that it does not deal with traditional television.  Apple is supposed to release a new version of the O/S for Apple TV tomorrow (June 11th) and it may provide some capability for controlling a cable/sat set top.   Cable companies like Comcast have done a terrible job of taking advantage of the set top which they actually pretty much control.

In the mean time  more and more  people are disconnecting themselves from cable and Satellite and just using the Internet.  So the idea that the Intel set top will improve advertising be targeting ads to people by using face recognition is pretty funny.  Maybe Steve Jobs figured out how to change all of this.  That would be the biggest surprise of all.

Battles Loom for Control Of TV’s Portal to Cable
Published: April 03, 1993

The unobtrusive cable control box that sits atop many television sets is about to become a new battleground for the nation’s computer, telephone and cable television companies. The ultimate prize: control of the access to all the video entertainment and new types of electronic information that enter and leave the home.
The struggle will move to a higher plateau, perhaps as early as next week, when three companies each dominant in their fields — Microsoft, Intel and General Instruments — are expected to announce that they are jointly developing a set-top device that combines the functions of a cable converter box and a personal computer, according to industry executives. The three companies are still working out final details of their agreement.
The new device is expected within a very few years, when cable television systems will probably offer as many as 500 channels and set-top units like the one envisioned may be the portals through which virtually all video signals flow. Viewer in Comman
The power of a personal computer will be helpful not only for selecting from all the movies and countless clones of popular television programs that are sure to evolve. But the computer might also make possible “interactive” television tasks like assembling newscasts tailored to a viewer’s particular interests, browsing through video versions of the encyclopedia or summoning on-screen shopping services in which the models in the Eddie Bauer or Victoria’s Secret catalogues parade their wares at a viewer’s command.
“There really aren’t any bigger battles than this,” Mark Stahlman, an industry analyst at New Media Associates in New York City, said. “Telephone companies, cable operators and computer manufacturers are racing into your bedroom.”
Besides Microsoft, Intel and General Instruments, a range of computer makers are anxious to form partnerships with both cable and telephone companies to attack the new interactive market. In addition to Apple Computer and I.B.M., which is each still looking for a teammate, video game makers such as Nintendo and Sega are each exploring relationships, and 3DO, a Silicon Valley start-up company with an advanced video player, is also looking for alliances. Industry Standard
Each company vying to establish the industry standard for the devices that will control all this action is buoyed by the knowledge that whoever seizes control of the set-top stands to make billions of dollars and help determine what type of information pulses into and out of millions of homes.
But of the teams formed so far, the one made up of Microsoft, Intel and General Instruments may be the most powerful and seems closest to bringing a product to market. General Instruments, a leading provider of set-top cable television decoders, has already been at work with the largest operate of cable systems, Tele-Communications Inc., to create the data-compression technology that Tele-Communications has said will make it possible to squeeze 500 channels into a single cable by 1994.
And now, Microsoft, which dominates the personal computer software market, and Intel, the world’s largest computer chip maker, will cooperate with General Instruments in designing the computerized set-top device that will contain a version of Microsoft’s popular Windows software and be powered by Intel’s 386-series personal computer chip.
A model geared to today’s cable systems, priced between $250 and $300, is to be available later this year. Next year, a more advanced version will add the digital-compression technology. In both cases, the set-top device will be operated with a remote-control unit that is similar to control devices used for today’s cable boxes and televisions.
“Interactive multimedia is just a wild frontier,” said Bishop Cheen, a senior analyst at Paul Kagen Associates, a media research firm in Carmel, Calif. “We have dozens of players out there from garage chipheads to major media corporations all converging on trying to give consumers 21st century technology. Most of them won’t be standing eight years from now, but the ones that will will be the superpowers.”
Tests of interactive television are already under way in several cities using simpler versions of the set-top controllers than are envisions by General Instruments, Intel and Microsoft. Time Warner, for example, is testing “video on demand” movie services on its cable systems in Queens and Orlando, Fla. Similar tests are under way in Denver by Tele-Communications in league with the telephone companies U S West and A.T.& T.
But the first successful commercial interactive system is not American. In Montreal, Groupe Videoway is already giving cable viewers a glimpse of what digital interactivity will mean in the future.
When Videoway customers watch Montreal Expos baseball games, for example, they can use a set-top converter made by Zenith Electronics to watch the game from up to four angles, jumping at will from camera to camera. As a camera behind home plate watches the radar gun that tracks the speed of each pitch, for example, a small window on the screen shows the path of each ball as it crosses the plate. Viewers can also switch to two other channels that show a continual stream of statistics like batting averages and star players’ salaries, while a fourth channel carries the game on a 10-second delay, to permit instant replays of any play. Decisions, Decisions
But none of these services or tests involve the full-fledged computers that General Instruments, Microsoft and Intel mean to place on the set-top. Among their other functions, these computers will offer a solution to what may be the most anxiety-inducing problem that will face the Information Age viewer: deciding what to watch when there are 500 channels to choose from.
A personal computer will rapidly sort through lists of programs, helping viewers select programs or even automatically turning on the videocassette recorder when they are away. Morevoer, it will be possible to use the computer as a personal research assistant to watch for programs on certain topics and tape them without pre-planning.
“This confluence of technologies is really going to be good for the viewer,” said Richard Green, president of Cable Television Laboratories, the industry’s research arm. “We used to call it the ‘I’d have watched it if I knew it was on network’ problem. This will solve that.”
Although an announcement by the General Instruments team will herald the arrival of the first all-digital commercial television systems, whether Microsoft and Intel will be able to thoroughly dominate the television market as uniformly as they dominate the office computer market is far from certain. ‘Very Different’
“The principles are going to be very different than those that applied to the personal computer industry,” warned John Sculley, Apple’s chairman. “I don’t see too many others in the computer industry who get the whole picture and who have resources to attack this market.”
Mr. Sculley said that he believes that Apple’s best opportunity would be in developing appealing consumer-oriented control systems — called “user interfaces” by computer designers. “It has to be as intuitive to use as today’s telephone and television,” Mr. Sculley said.
Despite industry executives’ enthusiasm for interactive technology, deep uncertainties remain. For one thing, cable operators are under new pricing pressure in light of the Federal Communications Commission’s order on Thursday that will force about two-thirds of the nation’s cable systems to lower their rates by 10 percent. And some cable executives wonder whether there is truly a market for services that might add substantially to monthly cable bills.
“I’m not sure that the pay-per-view market is as rosy as people think it is,” said John Kelley, president of Palo Alto Cable Co-op, a small cable system in California. “And it’s not clear to me that people want their TV to be a computer.”
Moreover, many analysts believe that interactive television in the home will present new marketing — and sociological — problems that technology hasn’t addressed.
“One of the big promises is that they will be able to tailor information to personal profiles,” Denise Caruso, publisher of Digital Media, an industry newsletter, said. “But what if you’re in the living room with your family. Who’s holding the remote? Are you going to have five TV’s in the room with everyone with their own remote? I don’t think so.”

One thought on “Intel enters the set top race again and again

  1. I guess our paths almost crossed again on this. I was the Compaq guy who worked with Craig Mundie on the whole smart TV and “1080p” HDTV initiative for many years. Small world. The STB business is a terrible business because the ST makers have always been overwhelmed by their customers, the cable companies, who care only about cost and nothing, and I mean nothing, about quality, reliability, or features. The current Comcast STB is, as you know, a total piece of junk. And the user interface is a joke, particularly compared to what Replay or TiVo offered 10 years ago!

    Sometime, over a drink, I’ll tell you about the time Craig and I were physically thrown out of Fox studios by their senior management for daring to suggest that the TV, Internet, and the PC would ultimately merge into a new living room entertainment device. The head of Fox called us arrogant morons to our faces. We were both told to tell Gates to stick a smart TV up his…you get the idea.


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