Several years ago in one of those creative paroxysms into which I’m occasionally swept, I bought what was destined to become a consumer electronics dinosaur. At the time, of course, it seemed like a good idea to buy a Panasonic DVD burner with built-in TV Guide and a hard drive.
The product’s concept – which is still brilliant, but then I always liked Beta better than VHS – let you select programs to record from the guide, store them on the hard drive, and either edit and burn them onto DVDs or just watch and delete them. It was like a DVR on steroids. The product, which clearly stated on its packaging that it did not work with satellite, worked pretty well with my Comcast service for about nine months. The only real glitch was that the unit would take about 24 hours to reload the TV Guide if the connection was lost for some reason, but that’s about how long it takes for the program guide to reload on a Motorola digital set-top.
One day the unit stopped working. The TV Guide information was drawn from the vertical blanking interval within an analog channel, and Comcast had gone all-digital. After a couple days with a screen message informing me that there was no signal, I started making calls, and the finger-pointing commenced. Panasonic pointed to TV Guide; TV Guide said it was Comcast; a Comcast spokeswoman sent an e-mail saying she was "not aware of any widespread impact … and we are working with Motorola and Guideworks (TV Guide) to address how to integrate new consumer electronic devices into our service"; a Motorola spokesman said he didn’t know nothing about nothing about no problems.
At the end of the day, the unit didn’t work because Comcast and Panasonic either didn’t talk to each other or didn’t care about those few subscribers who’d invested in these kinds of products. CableLabs to the rescue Things seem to be changing. This week CableLabs, which only moves on Comcast’s command, announced it has developed "a new solution that extends the functionality of certain Unidirectional Digital Cable Ready Products (UDCPs) that use CableCards to access switched digital services previously unavailable to such devices."
Deviating for a moment from this carefully crafted news release wording, the point is that cable is now moving to switched digital video, and the consumer electronics industry, in its usually shortsighted way, hasn’t prepared its CableCard-equipped cable-ready devices for the transition. Hell, the CE folks aren’t even prepared for conventional two-way communications, which is why those high-end products can’t get VOD. This, though, is more serious because SDV could wipe blocks of channels from the cable lineup in some high-falutin’ consumer homes.
"Historically speaking, when the one-way (cable-ready) agreement was struck, the CE industry insisted on just making digital cable-ready televisions in the same way they made analog cable-ready televisions. They didn’t want to deal with two-way," said a source who had been close to those negotiations.
Of course. Why be proactive when it’s so easy to blame cable when those multi-million-dollar TV sets and digital devices sputter and die like my DVD recorder? Interestingly, CableLabs and the cable industry have recognized that consumers don’t know or care about infighting or technical details. Pushed, no doubt, by its members and assisted by self-interested vendors like TiVo, Motorola, Scientific Atlanta, BigBand Networks and C-Cor (many of whom can just be called Cisco Systems these days), the Labs is doing something about this potential SNAFU before it explodes like a rubber cigar. Not exactly the perfect tool The adapter that will make these one-way devices two-way capable is not the be-all-to-end all. The UDCPs (and why do cable acronyms have to be even worse than telcos?) must have USB ports because "you need something that actually connects to the network and does the two-way communication on behalf of that one-way device," said Ralph Brown, CableLabs CTO.
So it’s possible that even devices without CableCards will be able to run both directions on the one-way streets on which their makers set them loose. It’s also possible that some digital devices that were purported to be cable-ready won’t work in a switched environment because they lack the USB necessary to download the proper interfaces.
"We’re just making sure that as long as we’re solving the problem for one case, we can solve it for as many as possible," Brown said.
And, considering past experience, kudos for that. All’s well in the end By the way, the Panasonic DVD burner, despite its potential, no longer resides in the Barthold home entertainment center. After months of wrangling, Panasonic sent the following e-mail:
"I received your receipt and have approved a refund in the amount of $635.99. Attached is a general release form that is required to be completed prior to processing the refund."
In other words, they took it back. – Jim Barthold