Cable Set-top Boxes: The New IBM Selectrics

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Does the name "IBM Selectric" ring a bell? If you are less than 40 years old, there is no reason that it should.

IBM had a very successful line of electric typewriters by that name. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think there were four or five typewriters - including a Selectric or two - in my home growing up. Fast forward a few decades and there are no typewriters. But there is another ubiquitous device, the set-top box (STB). The cable industry is on the precipice of drastic change, and the good-old STB - a staple for a couple of decades - seems to be destined to go the way of the typewriter.

MIT Technology Review's Christopher Mims wrote that when the owner of the content is separate from the distribution infrastructure - when HBO and Time Warner Cable, for instance, are no longer tightly linked - "old monopolies break down, assumptions are thrown out the window, revenues tank, giant companies crash and burn and from their ashes are born entirely new ones."

The situation is especially dire for today's STB-based infrastructure because an alternative approach is quickly emerging. The existence of the cloud and broadband means that programming may simply become another app. This would, of course, mean a huge dislocation in the market. The flow of revenue that leads to content creation will be diverted or even eliminated. The bottom line is that such a drastic change in how cable works will create business models that can't be predicted today.

The reality is that an increasing number of televisions are online. Parks Associates, cited in Home Media Magazine, says that 75 million homes will have an Internet-connected television by 2015. These will be able to get their programming "over-the-top" (OTT) on broadband connections. Even if they don't, the future of STBs is iffy since the authorization, encryption and decryption tasks that are a big part of what they do today can be performed in other ways - including over the Internet - even if the programming still comes from the cable operators.

The future of entertainment video distribution is a big deal since it deeply impacts the technological and financial status of the cable industry, one of the pillars of the American telecommunications landscape. Nobody knows what that change will look like, but it is possible that STBs are destined to take a spot in the back of the closet, right next to a typewriter or two.

Here is a bit of unrelated typewriter trivia that is too good not to mention: The keyboard in front of you - which, of course, is the same as a typewriter keyboard - has the letters that spell "typewriter" in a single row under the numbers. This layout supposedly was used so that traveling salesmen, who generally couldn't type, would have a way to demonstrate the device's efficiency.