So I’ve got some crazy ideas about launching a fiber-optic triple play operator somewhere. Or maybe someone else has those ideas and I’m just throwing in my own ideas. Now the hardest “play” would be TV, once you’ve got all your infrastructure in place. Internet is pretty much a given, as is VoIP; just white-label a solution from someone who already does it well (VOIPo for example, or so I hear). But with TV you have to not only make deals with all your content providers, but also figure out how you’re going to get video from point A (the content providers) to point B (subscribers’ TVs). Cable providers have fallen down on this a bit with utterly crappy set top boxes. Sat providers are a good bit better, as are TelcoTV providers (like U-Verse and FiOS) though, except in the case of FiOS, a better set top box goes hand in hand with lower picture quality. Which is unfortunate.

So the big question in my mind is, how would I design the perfect set top box, from both a consumer and a provider point of view? Here are some specs I came up with:

  1. nVidia ION chipset. Everyone says the thing can decode 1080p video with no problem. Paired with a decent operating system and a halfway-decent processor (like the low-power Atom 330) you’ve got an STB that not only performs well, but also can be used for a variety of things and isn’t going to run up the power bill.
  2. CableCard support, multiple streams. Granted, this is a given these days, but why not make things clear? RF video (via GPON) is what I’m assuming as the last mile medium; IPTV would work a bit differently of course.
  3. Easy-access 12.5mm height 2.5″ hard disk bay to turn pa plain set top box into a DVR. Pop in a bare SATA drive and pay a one-time upgrade fee, then start recording shows. Or pay a slightly larger fee plus the price of a handpicked drive and a tech will do all of that for you. Bottom line: there should be no hardware difference between a regular set top box and an HD one, aside from the presence of a hard drive, or lack thereof. If you’re wondering why a 2.5″ drive, it’s because the drive is smaller and takes less power. If people want to store gobs of content they can add an external drive. There might come a time when all video content is cached at the edge of the network (networked DVRs) but until then, let people have as many bits in their box as they possibly can install.
  4. Flash storage for non-video, namely the operating system and program guide. You want that stuff to load quickly, so why commit it to spinning metal when you can get enough flash to hold it for under $20?
  5. HD on every STB so you can say that there’s no extra equipment required. Plus, having a single model of box makes things a whole lot easier to keep track of.
  6. 2 USB ports. Aside from easy testing of devices, this would allow people to view media on their STB by plugging in a memory card reader or something equally quirky-but-cool. More importantly, people would be able to connect a whopping 2TB drive to their STB if they wanted and record shows onto it. The more shows they have recorded, the longer they’ll stick around to watch ’em, and the longer they’ll pay for service. Also, you can hook…
  7. …an external Blu-ray player to one of those USB ports. Make one that fits in with the decor of the typical media center and you’ve got yet another feature that makes that STB “sticky”. Why not? The onboard processor can handle it.
  8. Whole-home functionality. No need having multiple DVRs recording the same thing when you can just pull between them. That way one DVR does all the work and the rest sit there with less stuff to break.
  9. TiVo as the operating system, with no TiVo monthly fees. If you’re a service provider, you can probably work with TiVo on lowering the “price for life” subscription per box. Also, why use any other piece of software than the best? People say “I TiVoed that” just like they say “I googled that” so why not take advantage of the latent mindshare?
  10. Farm out on-demand as much as possible, with an “you’re on our awesome box” commission of a few percent. Nobody wants to spend $8 on a cable-provided movie on demand. Though on the other hand some sports stuff has to be done that way, at which point just download the on-demand stuff over the internet rather than via RF.

The above list might make for an expensive” dumb” set top box, but then again it might now. I’m pretty sure that, when purchased in bulk, all the above components would total less than $200, so if you charge $8 per month per box with the first one free you’re making your money back before the boxes are obsolete. Plus the fact that you’re using a single box across your network will make things a lot easier to deal with for customer service. I’m pretty sure any provider who instituted all of the above would have people running from competitors, even if the service did cost a few bucks more per month. Then again, I’ve never had pay-TV in my life :p