This is the Modem World: Can I pick my own set-top box, please?

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|09.12.12

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This is the Modem World: Can I pick my own set-top box, please?

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

When I was a kid, my parents actually rented our home phones from the phone company. They were hard-wired to the wall -- no detachable RJ cables. The phones were heavy, and when you needed a new one, you would call the phone company and get in line. They would then come out in four to six weeks and install the new phone for you at your expense. If you wanted to move the phone to another room, the process was like calling an electrician: holes were drilled, ladders were scaled and money was spent.

The phone equipment itself was drab, heavy and came in your choice of two colors: boring and depressing. Answering machines were rare -- instead, you had to use expensive answering services staffed by cranky women from New Jersey.

Then the glorious '80s saw the AT&T breakup that ultimately allowed consumers to choose their own phone equipment. Soon followed a wonderful wild west of phone design, collapsing prices and racing technology. Suddenly, Americans could express their individuality with their phones.

Ever see "Coming to America," that movie from a long-gone era when Eddie Murphy was still funny? If so, you'll remember the wondrous hamburger phone (later reprised in "Juno") used by his love interest's father who owned McDowell's, a McDonald's knockoff. Then there was the football phone that Sports Illustrated used to give away with subscriptions. And let's not forget the shoe phone, a favorite among "Get Smart" fans.

We learned that economists were right this time; competition is good. Companies won -- more consumers wanted phones and little companies became serious consumer electronics players. Consumers won too -- equipment was cheaper, better and more fun.

So what am I getting at?

It's time cable companies let go of our set-top boxes.

It's time cable companies let go of our set-top boxes. I'm not saying this simply because we want football-shaped boxes under our TVs (although that might be pretty cool). I'm saying that we're at a point in which set-top box technology offered to us as rentals from cable companies has become so bifurcated from what we want to do with our TVs.

We're installing Google TVs, Apple TVs, game consoles, Smart TVs, Rokus, wireless media players, Slingboxes, Boxees ... I can keep going. The point is, we're basically all using our cable boxes only to descramble the signal and using other equipment to actually view it. Sure, some of us use the DVRs built into our cable STBs, but we'd rather be using TiVos (or our own HTPCs) if we could.

But, no, we're stuck in the '80s because of our cable companies, forced to rent already outdated boxes that just get in the way of what we actually want to do.

Can't you let go already, cable companies? Let us choose our own boxes. Let us have fun!

I'll finish this with my recent experience of having cable installed in my new place this year. I knew exactly what I wanted: multi-room HD DVRs on my two TVs along with internet access, a pretty simple request.

What I ran into, though, was a technician who installed the wrong box -- three times -- until I did the research myself and had to tell him exactly which units -- model numbers and all -- he had to pull from his truck. Luckily, he had one of each and after four hours, he had my system up and running. After he left, I dropped the wireless router he gave me into bridge mode and used my own.

Here's how this scenario could have -- and should have -- played out. I call the local cable company and ask them to turn the signal on. I install my own STB and modem of choice. I configure each one as I please, choosing the programming packages right from the box as I see fit -- a mix of MLB.TV for my Yankees games, HBO Go for "Game of Thrones" and a basic TV package from the cable company for some History Channel. All in one box. Done. Boom. Bada bing.

Instead, I have a Smart TV that gets Netflix, MLB.TV and Amazon. I run Netflix on my PS3 because it looks and sounds better. I run YouTube on my Google TV because the interface is sweet. I use HBO Go on my Xbox 360. And, of course, I have a Motorola DVR from the cable company that descrambles "Pawn Stars." What a mess.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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