CableLabs In the past week we have been on a quest to make sense of this entire CableCARD mess. We started out by talking to Motorola which was great, but left us even more confused, so we decided to go straight to the source and give CableLabs a call. While we're not excited about the answers, we did learn that CableCARD 2.0 does exist and it's ready to go. Along the way we also learned what's preventing TiVo and Microsoft from adding our favorite features to their latest CableCARD host devices.

We aren't sure why this is so complicated, but right off the bat, lets clear something up. CableCARDs have supported two-way communications for some time, it is the two-way host device certification that is new to 2.0. This is the certification that is required by any consumer electronics device that wants to use the two-way CableCARD functionality. These cards also happen to be multi-stream cards, (up to 6 simultaneous) so they are called M-Cards -- older cards are S-Cards for single-stream. New boxes that are certified for two-way communications are already being deployed by SA and Motorola, and starting July 1st, 2007, all newly deployed digital cable STBs in the US will be CableCARD 2.0 certified. Some CE companies (LG, Panasonic and Samsung for example) are already starting to test their two-way devices with various cable companies around the US, and with any luck we should see one in the wild this year, or next.
At this point you should be asking, what is stopping TiVo or Microsoft from creating two-way, multi-stream CableCARD devices? The answer is, some CE companies are not happy with the certification specification that CableLabs has decided on. As we previously discussed, the point of contention is the OCAP requirement. While CableLabs is a technology lab, and not involved in all of the politics that define these requirements, basically the members of CableLabs feel that without OCAP, disintermediation (their word not ours) would occur. Or to put it in layman's terms, this would cut out the middle man, -- where the middle man is your cable company. With OCAP, TiVo couldn't deploy their software on a two-way host device without the cable company's approval, so the concept of going to the store and buying a TiVo that works anywhere wouldn't exist unless every cable company agreed to distribute and support TiVo's OCAP software -- this is how the long-awaited Comcast and TiVo agreement is going to work. The same might also be said for Vista Media Center, Microsoft would have to develop an OCAP VM in Vista Media Center and then work with each cable company to get them to deploy their user interface. This is assuming that the OCAP platform can provide the same rich UI that we've come to love from TiVo and Microsoft; otherwise the user experience when switching between other functions and OCAP required functions, would be anything but smooth.

Comcast TiVo

The other interesting detail we learned, was that features like TiVoToGo, Multi-Room Viewing, and even eSATA external hard drive support, are not included in the CableCARD certification specification. These details are in the license that the company must sign when getting certified. The good news is that companies can submit solutions to enable these features to CableLabs and be added to the license. So there is hope that these features will become a reality, but again, the members of CableLabs, -- just about every cable company in the US -- controls what's added to the license.

We certainly respect the cable companies desire to control their networks, after all they do own it, and they do have a business to run. A rogue two-way CableCARD devices could cause a lot of havoc. While CableLabs is complying with the law, we don't think it is in the spirit of the law, because it does not introduce a truly open platform. At some point the cable companies need to realize that what's good for their customers, is good for their business.

In the end, we hope that the FCC steps in and requires CableLabs to certify two-way devices that do not require OCAP.

A special thanks to Megazone for helping me make sense of all this.

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