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Intel's set-top TV effort snags on cable

Inspiration hits immovable force

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Intel's plans for a set-top box that would provide US television viewers' nirvana – being able to subscribe to the good stuff and not a bundle of useless channels – is being delayed by, amazingly enough, the cable industry.

Sources within Chipzilla had talked about a release of the devices early this year, with beta units going out in March. But others have told the Wall Street Journal that intransigence among the cable industry will hold the launch up until at least the last quarter of 2013.

Intel has one media partner on board, but is having problems cutting a deal with others to provide either a totally unbundled service or some new stacking of channels, the report states. Channel bundling is a long-standing and very lucrative practice, and since the networks argue that it's the only way to preserve specialist programming, it's not a surprise that Intel is having problems.

Way back in 2007, Intel launched its first SoC aimed at TV, and has made wild claims about the Smart TV future, with its chips integrating the internet into the television market in a way consumers would find irresistible. It didn't work out like that, with manufacturers reporting little demand.

Intel gave up on the idea, but there have been persistent rumors that it's planning a move of its own into the TV arena with a series of set-top boxes with DVR added, that would use both fixed and wireless connections to deliver content. The company has also patented facial recognition technology with DRM support for set-top boxes of the future.

Breaking out of the pure computing area into consumer devices has been something Intel has been trying to do since before soon-to-no-longer-be-CEO Paul Otellini's reign, but haven't puled it off. The world apparently isn't clamoring for smart TVs, and Intel's Atom efforts in smartphones are not proving popular.

Intel is hardly the first to have the idea, either. Apple and Google have their own TV products, but they aren't that popular (witness the speedy dropping of the Nexus Q) and no one has yet convinced consumers that they need an internet-enabled TV, particularly since it's increasingly likely that they'll have a tablet in their lap while watching the screen anyway.

If Intel believes it can succeed where others are failing, well, fair play to it, but it's unlikely that the cable companies will play ball. After all, what's in it for them? Customers may be happier but profits might fall, so don't expect much to change. ®

Bootnote

While all this is going on, the BBC is missing a huge revenue source in the US due to its continued failure to sort out its iPlayer system.

Currently those overseas can get most BBC Radio via the iPlayer app, but almost none of the TV content. Given that BBC America, the cable channel shown on this side of the Atlantic, gets 25 million viewers a month and numerous awards, a simple licensing system on iPlayer for TV content could be a huge money-spinner.

Even a straight conversion to dollars of the cheap current price of £145.50 for UK license-payers would make the BBC one of the best value US options, and would help make up for some of the funding shortfall Aunty Beeb is now facing. Such a move might annoy the cable industry, but would be worth it in the long run.

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