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CES: A cable box to love

Ces_2008_image_anyplay_pdvr_docked2 Panasonic today showed off two of the first fruits of its collaboration with Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator. One was a new line of plasma HDTVs that have what amounts to a built-in cable converter box. Unlike the current CableCard-equipped TVs, these sets can deliver everything Comcast has to offer -- including video on demand services -- without need for a set-top box. They'll work with selected other operators' cable systems as well. The other new item, shown at left, struck me as the first truly compelling cable set-top box. That's because it does more than just decode and record cable signals. The device has two parts: a base station that receives and decodes cable signals, and a digital video recorder that can be detached and converted into a portable video player. The latter, called the AnyPlay P-DVR, comes complete with an 8.5" screen and speakers, and it can hold up to 60 hours of recorded video. With that kind of capacity, who needs a portable DVD player?

The cable-ready plasmas will be available later this year and the AnyPlay in (no pricing yet for either item).

The collaboration between Panasonic and Comcast isn't without controversy, given the tension between CE companies and the cable industry. Five years ago, TV manufacturers, tech companies and the cable industry hammered out a standard for one-way cable-ready devices (in other words, they could tune in cable channels without a converter box, but they couldn't deliver pay-per-view or video on-demand services), but these "CableCARD" products haven't done well in the market. Set-makers and tech companies blame the cable companies for undermining CableCARD with poor support, while the cable companies say the other side is to blame for not hewing carefully to a single standard.

That battle has since extended into the long-running, unsuccessful negotiations over a standard for two-way cable-ready devices. This dispute boils down to a battle over who controls the way viewers interact with cable services, such as program guides, video on demand services and the like. A handful of big consumer-electronics companies, including Panasonic and Samsung, have agreed to embrace the cable industry's approach, which was rechristened "tru2way" today (instead of OCAP, or Open Cable Applications Platform). Under "tru2way," the cable operator controls the user interfaces for its services. Other set-makers and tech companies are still fighting for an alternative way to build TVs, DVRs and PCs that can tap into the full lineup of cable services without requiring a cable converter box.

-- Jon Healey

Photo of the AnyPlay P-DVR courtesy of Panasonic.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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