The Big DVR in the Sky: Good News For You and Me?

Here’s a major development in a tech legal tussle I wasn’t even following: The U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that it’s okay for Comcast to offer a digital video recorder service in which the DVRing is all done at its facilities and delivered over the cable system–rather than via a box with a hard drive inside it in the consumer’s living room, which is how DVRs have worked since the dawn of TiVo and ReplayTV.

Media companies had sued to prevent this form of networked digital recording, fearing that it would make DVRs more pervasive, and therefore increase the odds that TV watchers will skip the ads that pay for their content.

Over at Barrons, Eric Savitz has a good post on the implications of today’s ruling. It’s obviously good news for Comcast and bad news for the media companies who had hoped to prevent it from offering this technology. Eric says it’s also a bummer for DirecTV and Dish Network, since there’s no way to deliver networked DVR functionality via satellite. I imagine that TiVo isn’t thrilled with the ruling, either–anything that helps make DVRs provded by cable companies more popular presumably hurts the sales of the box that’s still synonymous with “DVR.”

Mostly, though, I’m wondering: Should consumers be pleased with this ruling?

One benefit seems to be obvious: If Comcast can put the DVR at its end of the network, it should be able to let its customes sign up for DVR service without having to swap a non-DVR cable box for a new one. It should also allow folks with multiple cable boxes in their homes to get access to their recorded TV from any TV set.

I’m not enough of a cable-TV technology guru to know whether a cable box will be required at all to get access to a networked DVR. I’d like to think that a TV set with a CableCard would be up to the task, but I assume that it will require the elusive piece of technology known as the two-way CableCard.

If any of this happens, it would be pleasant but far from earthshaking. But centralizing the DVR would also open up the possibility of letting people get access to their recorded TV from any PC or phone with an Internet connection–in other words, providing the functionality of Sling Media’s wonderful SlingBox without requiring the SlingBox. You might even be able to get at your shows from any TV with Comcast service.

That would be neat. I’m not holding my breath that we’ll see it anytime soon, though–and even when it does show up, I suspect it might be in a form that’s nowhere near as usable and lovable as the TiVo/SlingBox combo I’ve been using for awhile to watch my favorite programs anywhere at any time. (I haven’t used Comcast’s current DVR box, but as far as  can tell, you can divvy its users up into two groups: Those who find it adequate, and those who can’t stand it.)

Of course, as a Court of Appeals ruling, this decision is subject to further change. It may be a long while before Comcast or any other cable company gets to put DVRs in the cloud. But to answer the question I asked a few paragraphs ago, I hope that they do–I can’t see any way that such a technology would be anything but a happy development for consumers. (Unless you take the “If consumers skip past all commercials, advertising, and therefore advertising-supported TV, will go away” scenario into account, which you probably should–but that’s a subject for another post…)


2 comments

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  1. John Feeney August 5, 2008 at 9:00 am #

    “a happy development for consumers” like that was the true intent of this whole thing. Under the flag of Fair Use, cable companies will re-invent itself. And you thought we were moving on…

  2. CableTechTalk August 8, 2008 at 11:50 am #

    To clarify, it’s not the CableCARD that’s two-way, it’s the device it plugs into. The story you linked to is about Sony (and other manufacturers) signing on to the tru2way MOU.

    Would a network DVR service require a set-top box or a tru2way device? I would say “yes.” You would need two-way communication to request the content from the headend and to work the playback controls. So, not just a TV with a CableCARD, since the current generation of sets are only one-way, but a tru2way set.

    See more about CableCARDS and tru2way here.