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The dumbest box

Blake J. Graham | Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Your cable box is likely the most unsophisticated piece of technology you own. It’s an antediluvian ruin – a paean to an age of primitive tools, lo-fi signals, and basic cable. Yet it survives in apartments, homes and dorms across the country and continues to be sold by cable providers. The box provides a difficult-to-use interface controlled by a wonky remote control and struggles to perform the simplest tasks.

All of the other technology around us has advanced: We have sophisticated wireless internet, our telephones have enough horsepower to get us to the moon and film an HD documentary when we arrive, our lights can automatically dim to conserve energy, our computers can perform billions of calculations in fractions of seconds and are thinner than pencils. But, if you want to watch live television, you have to walk over to a dusty grey box, pick up a sticky remote with faded rubber buttons and repeatedly press the power button.
Now it’s easy to consider assembling a committee of kind but disgruntled folks to analyze the defects of the cable box, then have them write a report and take it to the cable companies. This could be done, but it’s much more exciting to think of a world where there is no cable box or cable company.

The box is just an intermediary. And in many cases, it’s not even visible (i.e. it has been buried in the walls of the building or is embedded in the television.) It serves to interpret the signals sent by the cable provider and decode them into Seinfeld reruns and E! News. If you throw out the cable box, all you have is a screen and a need for media source.

We are surrounded by screens – they absolutely consume our lives. Phones, computers, tablets, coffee makers, toasters, refrigerators, alarm clocks, etc. all have visual displays just waiting there. Egad, we also have a super-massive protocol for getting information and data from place to place: the Internet.

Netflix was founded on the premise that they could get an envelope to your mailbox before you broke down and made the hike all the way to the video store. It took a couple of days, but it just showed up after you made a couple of clicks on your computer. They then beat that timing when they decided to send the media to your computer instead of to your door.

Now there’s a glut of services and companies that do just that: Hulu, Amazon, Apple, Google, Sony and so on. For a fee, they will send a movie or television show straight to your devices so you can watch it anytime, on any screen, anywhere. But there are a couple of holdouts and they are all controlled by the cable companies and the premium channel providers. HBO released a web and mobile application called HBO Go which allows users to playback a huge portion of HBO’s premium catalog, the only caveat being you must be an HBO subscriber to access it, and to be an HBO subscriber, you also have to be a cable subscriber.

Comcast, who is trying very desperately not to be Comcast but Xfinity, also has a web and mobile application that allows you to stream any of their On Demand content. Alack. You must be a Comcast subscriber to use it.

Imagine if you could simply purchase a HBO Go subscription and forego the entire cable company. Ten dollars a month? Twenty dollars a month? It doesn’t matter. Pay $20, then add another $10 for Hulu Plus, $8 more for Netflix and budget off $30 for movie rentals from iTunes or Amazon, and your monthly bill is still significantly less than many forms of basic, standard definition cable across the country.

You could watch all the media you require on any of your devices and do it at any time. Enjoy CNN’s 24-hour coverage? They could also sell a subscription tied to a web and mobile app. Fifteen dollars a month and live TV you actually like would be available to you at any hour of the day. And with technology like Apple TV and the newest Mac operating system, you can easily stream any content on your computer to your ginormous TV over WiFi.

Sadly, this is not the world in which we live yet. We’re still tethered to dumpy-looking boxes made by Motorola in the year 1997. All the technology is there; the potential future is primed. But cable companies are slow to move and afraid of losing their money. In fact, revenue for Time Warner and Comcast continues to grow while companies like Netflix and Hulu are taking heavy flack from their investors for growing too slowly.

Your habits will form the consumption models for years to come. Look to the options that fight for progress.
Blake J. Graham is a sophomore. He can be reached on Twitter @BlakeGraham or at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.