CableCARD: What Happened? Page 2

The second thing that customers noticed: Some of the most important TV features - pay-per-view (PPV), video-on-demand (VOD), electronic programming guides - didn't work on a CableCARD TV. It was a one-way device that couldn't interact with your cable company. So, consumers paid a lot more and got a lot less. Your government at work!

Sure, CableCARD had some benefits. First, it did eliminate that tremendously unsightly set-top box (which was always the first thing that anyone saw when they entered your living room). Second, accordingly, you needed only one remote to control the TV - no separate remote for a set-top box. Third ... well, I can't think of another benefit. Sorry.

The fundamental problem - where do I start? - was that CableCARD was a half-baked technology, and federally mandating its adoption was a premature mistake. Ironically, CableCARD is already obsolete. A CableCARD 2.0 standard is being prepared that supposedly will fix many of the limitations and problems of the original. CableCARD 2.0 is known as Interactive Digital Cable Ready, and as that name implies, it should fix the non-interactivity problem. But TVs with original CableCARD slots won't be compatible with 2.0's interactive features. And frankly, after getting burned on 1.0, how many people will willingly pay extra to take a chance on CableCARD Part Deux?

The new standard is also a bad bet because it, too, may become obsolete, fast. Software standards known as OpenCable Application Platform and Downloadable Conditional Access System are being developed that may provide all the functionality, ease of use, and security that today's HDTVs need.

So, what's the bottom line? Six million CableCARD-ready TVs have been sold, and fewer than 3% of the slots actually have cards; that's a lot of wasted money. After offering CableCARD for 2 years, TV makers have started to delete it (with 80% fewer models available this year than last year). Cable companies aren't sorry to see it go; they derive mucho income from PPV and VOD, and CableCARD didn't allow for them. The only life support for CableCARD is that it does work well for some cable customers, and it's fine for home theater PC systems like the Microsoft Vista Media Center, with its Internet access and proprietary program guide. Beyond that, CableCARD probably won't be inducted into the Pantheon of Great Audio/Video Technology.

Fortunately, there's a happy ending to all of this. After studying the CableCARD specs, I've discovered an extremely useful application that even the original designers didn't anticipate. To take advantage of it, here's what you do: Find a scrap of paper and write down your complaints about CableCARD's utter lack of functionality, then wad up the paper and stuff it into the slot on the back on your TV. Thanks to the space-age technology of CableCARD, the contents of your note will be transmitted instantly to the FCC. Highly paid government officials will leap into action to address your concerns and mail you a refund check. After all, the FCC is always acting in your best interests. And the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions.

Read the update to this story!

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