All hail the set-top

All hail the set-topTrefor Hooker, European marketing manager of Microware Systems which provides software for set-top boxes, thinks the set-top box will predominate over the PC in the home and is prepared to justify his claims Many homes are now equipped with some sort of PC. The latest models are often true multimedia platforms, with integrated video, graphics and sound. Once equipped with a modem and connected to an appropriate Internet service provider, users are able to connect to the Internet and browse the World Wide Web. Digital television will also be with us soon. In the UK, digital services are expected to be delivered via terrestrial, satellite and cable. In many respects the set-top box, or integrated digital television, designed to receive these new digital television services will share many features of the PC. They will contain high-speed 32-bit processors with sophisticated communication capabilities. Like PCs, they will be able to handle multimedia, in the form of video, graphics and sound. The more sophisticated set-top boxes will allow the delivery of interactive services, so opening up a world of home shopping, home banking, on-line gambling, quizzes and games. There is also no reason why Web browsing should not be added. Popular Web pages could be broadcasted to all users and less popular ones be accessed on demand via a back channel. For displaying and interacting with multimedia images, sounds and services, the PC and the set-top box are therefore similar. If these uses predominate, the set-top box will prevail because it will cost less, be more reliable, last longer and be easier to use. More reliable? Users seem willing to occasionally ‘reset’ their PC. Some PC’s actually provide a button specifically to do this. Consumers do not expect to reset their television, VCR or Hi-Fi. Reliable software is achieved by good software design, and the removal of unnecessary features which only increase costs and reduce reliability. What about the picture?
Most PC Monitors purchased today have the ability to display to SVGA resolution, that is 800 x 600 and use non-interlaced scanning. TVs use interlaced scanning and have much lower resolution. This makes TV displays cheaper than PC displays. Content for use with digital television will be specifically designed to be displayed on lower resolution television displays. Easier to use?
Most users of PCs often require assistance in using their products. There is a whole industry that has grown up around the need to help consumers use their PC. These range from premium rate telephone ‘help lines’, to self-help books. But people do not expect to purchase a “Dummies Guide to VCRs”, nor will they expect to purchase one for a set-top box. There is no easy way to achieve ease of use. It is purely a matter of fully understanding the consumers’ needs and careful design. The user interfaces have to be specifically designed for home use, rather than for office use like the PC. Last longer?
Most televisions now purchased have a life expectancy of greater then ten years. Even when the main household television is replaced in less than 10 years, the current model will typically find its way into the master bedroom and subsequently into the childrens’.
However, how many use PCs older than five years? It is now becoming difficult to purchase new software that requires anything less than a Pentium and 16Mbyte of memory to run. Set-top boxes, thanks to the work of organisations like the UK Digital TV Group, will remain useful into the future and will lend themselves to smooth and compatible upgrades. Cost less?
Consumers seem willing to pay in excess of ?1,000 to purchase their PC. In seems unlikely that they will be prepared to spend anything like that for their set-top box. ?200 is often mentioned as an upper limit.
Where the cost to the consumer exceeds ?200, it is likely that the broadcaster or service provider will subsidise the purchase, in return for a guaranteed minimum subscription period by the consumer. It is expected that the true cost of the set-top box, unsubsidised, will be about ?400.
To achieve this, the software used will be smaller and more efficient than that used in PCs, running in 4Mbyte or less. Rather than the Intel model used in PCs, set top boxes use RISC processors that are cheaper and faster. The operating systems are much cheaper than Windows 95 and require no hard disk.
Cable & Satellite ’98 18-20 May at Earls Court 2 It incorporates DTT ’98 and iTV ’98 For event information or access the Internet on http://www.cabsat.co.uk/ or for tickets and further details email them at cabsat@cpm.tcom.co.uk.


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