How DVD Recording Got Paused (June 2012 CEA repost)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up. This one served as a belated correction to a few Post columns when it ran on June 6, 2012.)

Five years ago, a newspaper technology columnist heralded an overdue upgrade to a popular category of consumer electronics—adding a “record” button to the DVD player.

DVD recording“The DVD player has been around for more than a decade, but now it has finally grown up,” this writer declared. As proof, he cited an end to a squabble over recording formats (decried in a 2003 column by the same scribe) and these devices’ newly-gained ability to record over-the-air digital broadcasts.

The writer was me, and the forecast was wrong. DVD recording never took off or even picked up much speed on the runway.

CEA’s figures show U.S. sales to dealers of DVD recorders crested at 2.47 million in 2009 before ebbing to an estimated 797,000 last year. Meanwhile, combined U.S. shipments of DVD and Blu-ray players topped out at 34.04 million in 2011 and then dropped to 24.71 million in 2011.

I put my money where my words were, buying a Toshiba DVD recorder in 2009. But after a brief flurry of use archiving old videotape recordings to disc, we rarely employed it for anything but playing CDs and movies.

After a friend sold me his TiVo HD–fortunately, with lifetime-of-the-product service attached–we retired the recorder to the upstairs TV and picked up a Blu-ray player for our living room. (Note that after all of my earlier skepticism of 3-D TV, the under-$100 model I chose for other reasons happens to support 3-D.)

Our DVD recorder now sits alone and insert upstairs; I don’t even think I’ve plugged it back in after testing a Roku Web-media receiver with that set.

What did I miss? And are there any lessons to draw from my errant estimate?

Four come to mind.

It’s easier to survive a format war without competition. The debut of the DVD itself was held back by lengthy disagreements over its capacity and features, but viewers didn’t have an obvious, appealing alternative to VHS to buy.

That was not the case when manufacturers lined up behind opposing recordable formats: DVD-RW (often pronounced as “minus RW” by opponents), DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. It took a few years of dispute before the industry agreed to support both the -RW and +RW standards, leaving behind DVD-RAM.

(If you could redesign the format from scratch, you might pick DVD-RAM, which allowed much of the same play-while-recording flexibility of hard drive-equipped digital video recorders. But most existing DVD players couldn’t read those discs.)

This delay cost DVD recording more than I had realized in 2007. It allowed DVRs to cement themselves as the video-recording solution of choice.

Pay-TV incompatibility can kill video hardware. Aside from some models with “QAM” tuners for basic-tier cable and fewer, older models with CableCard slots, DVD recorders couldn’t record pay-TV programming unless their intrepid owners set up “IR blaster” controls for their cable and satellite boxes.

But why bother when a cable or satellite company will rent you a DVR that just works with its service? Nobody had a good answer to that question, and newer ventures in home video hardware—for instance, the Google TV hardware I tried in 2010—have run into the same problem.

So if you want to know why you still can’t buy a Blu-ray recorder for your TV in the U.S., there’s one answer.

Just because the features you want exist in separate products doesn’t mean they’ll all come together. I expected DVD recorders would soon gain the ability to record in “enhanced definition” 480p resolution—the same upgrade provided by progressive-scan DVD players and generally welcomed by viewers. That never happened, leaving DVD recording stuck in standard-def.

I also though it obvious to use the “TV Guide on Screen” metadata sent out with over-the-air digital TV broadcasts to provide a simple interactive program grid with one-touch recording. Instead, DVD recorders, our purchase included, required me to punch in start and stop times, as if I were still using the top-loading VCR my parents bought in the early 1980s.

Portability isn’t as important as I think. My advocacy for DVD recording was rooted in the idea that viewers would want a permanent copy of their favorite videos—say, the broadcast of their team winning the World Series or the Super Bowl.

Digital video recorders, however, have generally left out convenient video-export features ever since ReplayTV declined to enable a FireWire digital-video output on its pioneering DVRs. And viewers seem okay with that, as long as they can at least transfer copy-restricted recordings from one DVR to the next.

That’s something to consider as home movie viewing shifts from discs to online streaming. I would like to think that some movies are works for the ages and merit safekeeping in physical media you can take wherever you go. But if you can pull up your favorite flicks online, maybe that doesn’t matter.

Which somehow seems a little sad.

Weekly output: WiFi refrigerator, social media and government agencies, cord-cutting, QAM encryption, CableWiFi

My workweek had better scenery than usual, courtesy of the drive to and from Shepherdstown, West Virginia for my Thursday appointment.

USAT fridge photo4/8/2013: A refrigerator that thinks?, USA Today

I didn’t write this piece, but a photo I took at CES of Samsung’s WiFi-linked, Evernote-enabled T9000 refrigerator ran with it in print. This is the first time an image I’ve uploaded to Flickr has attracted the notice of a paying customer–which reminds me, I should upload more of the gadget-porn pictures I have cluttering iPhoto.

4/10/2013: Using Social Media to Communicate with the News Media, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I made that trip to speak on a panel with NBC 4 editor Natasha Copeland and Washington Association of Black Journalists president Donna Walker at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center–a beautiful campus a few miles uphill from town–about how government agencies can tell their story to the press in social media. My key point: Be prepared for the conversation with the general public, even if that means your Twitter presence becomes a tech-support channel. I don’t think they’ve posted video of our chat yet, but I’ll update this if they do. Update, 4/17: The organizers have posted an Adobe Connect recording of our panel.

4/11/2013: Who’s Going To Crack The Cord-Cutting Conundrum?, Disruptive Competition Project

Last weekend’s panel about cord cutting at Free Press’s conference in Denver yielded some useful insights about potential disruptions to the multichannel-TV business that I thought would be worth sharing with a wider audience.

4/14/2013: Tip: Why you need a box for basic cable, USA Today

RCN’s decision to encrypt its entire cable feed–then not offer any cheap way for owners of HDTVs to watch just local channels in high-def–gave me an excuse to revisit a topic I’d last covered for USAT a year earlier. The piece also includes something more positive about the cable industry, a tip about five major services’ initiative to provide free WiFi to all their subscribers.

Sulia highlights for the week: a negative review of WordPress.com’s implementation of two-step verification, a rant about two long-broken features on Intuit’s Mint.com, a note about inexplicable bugginess with Bluetooth file transfer from my Android phone, and an item about how a review phone’s number had come to be included in a long, intensive group-texting thread. (Since I sent my “can you take me off this list?” reply, I haven’t gotten any more messages from that chat.)

Qualms Over QAM (2012 CEA re-post)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up or shed light on current issues. This one ran on Feb. 14, 2012;  the AllVid effort I mentioned at the end has gone nowhere since, but in October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow QAM encryption–with results that I’ll be discussing in this weekend’s USA Today column.)

This month’s telecom-policy squabble covers a TV technology that nobody seems to love–if they even know it exists.

The system in question goes by the name QAM, short for “quadrature amplitude modulation,” and it’s the only way to tune into digital cable without a box. But while “cable-ready” sets dealt fairly well with even premium channels in the mid 1990s, QAM’s horizons are far more limited.

Coax cableYou can’t count on QAM providing more than the “basic tier” of local broadcast stations plus public, educational and government channels. Forget ESPN or even CNN; to get those without a cable box, you need a CableCard-compliant device–which in practice means either a TiVo digital video recorder or one of a few add-on tuners for computers.

But it’s worse than that: As readers have testified and I’ve seen myself, QAM reception often presents a puzzling picture of your cable choices. Channels can appear under seemingly random numbers–and then move to new ones or disappear outright.

So the proposal now before the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable operators to encrypt QAM signals on all-digital networks–simplifying their systems while cutting off existing QAM hardware–might not seem like anything worth fussing over.

And yet for a small minority of users, QAM does work. Some use it on second or third sets (PDF); some resorted to basic-tier cable after failing to get adequate over-the-air digital-TV reception; some employ it to use computers as digital video recorders. And these subscribers don’t want it to go away.

How many people are we talking about? The Web-media-receiver vendor Boxee says that 40 percent of buyers of its new Boxee Live TV device use QAM to receive cable TV through that add-on. You could dismiss that as a figment of a small sample size; that $49 add-on has only been on sale since January. But a more established computer-video vendor, Hauppauge Computer Works, also cited 40 percent QAM usage (PDF) among buyers of its PC peripherals.

The Consumer Electronics Association has no stats for this segment of the market.

CEA has joined those manufacturers in their opposition to QAM encryption, writing in a November filing (PDF) that the FCC should decline this request unless it also moves forward on other, long-standing proposals to open up the market for TV hardware (more on that in a moment).

The cable companies’ arguments, as related over a call Friday with representatives of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, fall into three categories:

• Cable operators’ own figures suggest that almost nobody relies on QAM. Cablevision, which obtained a waiver from the FCC to start encrypting QAM after converting to all-digital service in New York, N.Y., reported that “less than 0.1 percent of subscribers” (PDF) requested a free set-top box or CableCard to decode it.

• Encryption will allow remote activation and deactivation, without sending a technician on a truck to somebody’s house. (NCTA realizes that people don’t like sitting through four-hour service windows.)

• Encryption will also stop people from tuning into basic-tier cable without paying. RCN, among other cable operators, reports (PDF) this is a growing problem among Internet-only subscribers.

It’s important to note that the the cable operators, while maybe not everyone’s favorite companies, have been way ahead of satellite vendors in the interoperability game. DirecTV users who wanted to plug in a TiVo could only wait for that service to ship its own “DirecTiVo” model; that recently arrived, years late, to complaints over its aged interface.

Meanwhile, CableCard finally seems to work as advertised–even if that’s happened too late for some pioneering CableCard vendors. Once-prominent TiVo rival Moxi Digital gave up the fight two weeks ago when its new owner, ARRIS Group, announced that it would only sell through cable operators.

There’s been a proposal afoot, against opposition from cable, to set a comprehensive pay-TV standard called “AllVid” that would work not just for cable but also satellite and fiber-optic services. It would allow every screen in a home network to tie into a simple gateway adapter–the video equivalent of the wireless router that links a cable modem and a laptop.

That’s what CEA has been asking for in return for giving up clear QAM. Boxee could also live with this tradeoff, said spokesman Andrew Kippen; Hauppauge CEO Ken Plotkin, however, was not to ready to make that deal.

Me, I think I could live with that bargain–if it included an assurance that current QAM users who will have to tolerate a new box and remote control won’t have to pay extra for them. (If encrypting QAM harms so few people and yields as many benefits as cable operators say, they should be able to afford subsidizing that hardware.)

But this is an easy thing for me to say, since I switched to over-the-air and Internet broadcasts years ago. If you pay for cable today, I’d rather know your opinion: Would you trade simple reception of entry-level cable today for easy access to a full lineup of channels a few years from now?

Weekly output: WiFi, Mac or PC, Web chat, QAM, HD or SD

I did not review a single product or service this week. Don’t worry; that streak won’t last long.

4/10/2012: Passpoint: A Recipe for Wider Wi-Fi, CEA Digital Dialogue

I got a little wonky with this post explaining a new standard for automatic WiFi roaming–first for smartphones, later for other devices. The idea behind WiFi Certified Passpoint (also referred to by the names of related efforts, Hotspot 2.0 or Next Generation Hotspot) is to ensure that people can stay online when the cellular airwaves get crowded. I got an example of the need for such a thing when I couldn’t upload a photo to Twitter from the Washington Nationals’ home opener.

4/12/2012: We’re All Macs And PCs (Unless We’re iPhones), Discovery News

My editors at Discovery asked if I’d be interested in writing an essay on the fading Mac-PC divide, and I said that sounded like a good topic–especially coming after a week that had seen Apple hit with an antitrust suit and the Mac get hit with a massive malware attack. I enjoyed writing this piece, although I’m a little puzzled that it didn’t draw any comments beyond a reader e-mail calling the piece “misleading, incorrect, and mischievous” (the writer has not responded to my request for specific examples of same).

I also enjoyed coming up with the no-Photoshop-involved illustration you see on the post. To take that photo, I held a Kindle Fire with its browser open to the Windows 7 logo in just the right spot to have that Microsoft graphic reflected in the Apple logo below an iMac’s screen–while holding a camera in the other hand.

4/13/2012: The Widening Wireless World (Web chat), CEA Digital Dialogue

My monthly Web chat covered a variety of mobile and wireless topics and a few related to desktop and laptop computing: LTE and WiMax 4G, WiFi roaming, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports and–of course!–the possible timing of the next iPhone.

4/15/2012: Do you need a box for digital cable? USA Today

This column started out with a Twitter inquiry from a Comcast subscriber outside of Charlottesville, Va., about tuning into just local channels without a box–a subject I’d covered at length for CEA a couple of months back. (Look, synergy!) The rest of the column outlines which cable and satellite providers offer ways to avoid watching the SD versions of channels you pay to watch in HD. (Speaking of synergy, from now on I’m going to try to have some thread connecting the Q&A part of each column with the tip.)

Weekly output: blog hosts, QAM, Kojo Nnamdi, iPad rumors, Web chat

This week involved more real-time interaction with readers than usual.

2/12/2012: Tip: For a personal Web page, keep it simple, USA Today

First a reader e-mailed to ask about the easiest way to host a blog under a personal domain name; then, between my filing this piece and USAT posting it, two friends asked me the same question. I guess the timing was right for the topic. The column also offers a tip that emerged from a comment thread here: You can recharge an iPad over any random charger with a USB port, not just a higher-powered model labeled as iPad-compatible.

2/14/2012: Qualms Over QAM, CEA Digital Dialogue

Here I discuss the cable industry’s proposal to encrypt the local, public, educational and government channels that “QAM” (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) tuners in digital TVs can receive without a box. Would you trade that–cable operators say encrypting QAM will free new customers from having to wait for the cable guy to show up–for the Federal Communications Commission making its “AllVid” proposal for box-free reception a standard for both cable and satellite? For further reading: The National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s Paul Rodriguez explains why cable operators don’t like the “traps” they now use to control access, while venture capitalist Fred Wilson argues for keeping clear QAM and providing the broadcast channels for free.

2/14/2012: Our Love/Hate Relationship with Email, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

I discussed ways to tame an overloaded inbox with WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi and two other guests, etiquette author Anna Post and IBM social-computing evangelist Luis Suarez. You hear more of me in the second half of the show, after Suarez’s call-in segment ended. (Tip: You can speak in paragraphs on public radio, but they have to be newspaper paragraphs.)

2/17/2012: The Only ‘iPad 3′ Story You Need To Read, Discovery News

The headline I wrote may oversell this story a bit–but, really, the feature set on the next iPad should not be that hard to figure out. And if this post isn’t the only next-iPad piece you elect to read, it’s certainly the only one I plan to write, just as I only wrote one next-iPhone post last year.

2/17/2012: Living a Connected Life (Web chat), CEA Digital Dialogue

My second monthly chat for CEA started a little slow, but I wound up getting enough questions from readers to stick around for an extra 15 minutes. One query I got confirmed my decision to devote next week’s CEA post to the upcoming reallocation of some spectrum from TV to wireless data mandated by this week’s payroll tax-cut bill. Another may yield an item for my USA Today column: how to connect an ’80s-vintage Nintendo NES (no, really) to an HDTV.